Remembering John Lewis (1940-2020)
Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis, two icons of the civil rights movement, passed away recently, and for the next two weeks our Mission Moment columns will be dedicated to remembering their lives and impact on our community.
Representative John Lewis of Georgia passed away at age 80 on July 17 after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
Lewis was born to sharecropper farmers, but as a young man he was inspired by the ideas that he heard on radio broadcasts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He left his father’s small farm in Pike County, Alabama, to attend Fisk University, determined to find a role in the growing civil rights movement.
As a student, he organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, but he first came to national attention as one of the original “Freedom Riders” who challenged segregation in interstate bus terminals in the South. In part, the success of the Freedom Riders propelled the Interstate Commerce Committee to order that public transit would be desegregated. That was in 1961; Lewis was still in college at the time.
In 1963, as the director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in organizing the March on Washington—and he spoke to the 250,000 attendees from the same podium from which Dr. King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. At age 23, Lewis was the youngest speaker. He was also the last surviving speaker when he died.
On March 7, 1965, John Lewis and Hosea Williams led the Selma to Montgomery March to push for voting rights. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge, they were attacked by Alabama state troopers. Lewis sustained a head injury, but he nonetheless was in the march when Dr. King, Jr. restarted it under federal protection just two weeks later. The pictures of the beating at Edmund Pettus Bridge and the resolute face of John Lewis calmly facing the belligerent police force were seen across the United States. What came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” was a key factor in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed by President Lyndon Johnson just five months later.
The Civil Rights Movement became the focal point of the life and career of John Lewis. He worked as an organizer and advocate—earning an advanced degree from American Baptist Theological Seminary along the way. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to be the director of ACTION—a federal volunteer agency.
He began a political career with a run for City Council in Atlanta in 1981 and was first elected to Congress in 1986. He served for 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives as the representative for Georgia’s 5th District. He won his last election in 2016 with 84% of the vote, and he continued to serve in the U.S. Congress until his death.
Representative Lewis never faltered in his commitment to civil rights or in his unshakable faith in nonviolent protest and opposition to injustice. He embodied the commitment that he urged on each of us when he said, “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
President Barak Obama awarded John Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian honor—in 2010.
You can see the continuity between the photos and footage of the young John Lewis and the statesman he became. There is always an unshakable determination on his face. As an agent of hope, he challenged our nation to pursue justice for six decades, and he continues to inspire us today.
About the future, Lewis said, “Our struggle is not a struggle that lasts one day, or one week, or one month, or one year, or one session of Congress, or one presidential term. Our struggle is a struggle of a lifetime—to build a truly multi-racial democracy in America. We’re not there yet. We have to stay focused. We have to keep the faith. We have to keep our eyes on the prize and move forward.”