Remembering John Lewis: Civil Rights leader and Democratic Representative for Georgia’s Fifth District, known as the ‘Conscience of Congress’.
By Jamie Colvin
The American politician, activist and last surviving speaker of the 1963 March on Washington, John Lewis, died on 17th July, a day that marked the conclusion of a long life spent in battle for ‘freedom, equality, [and] basic human rights’.
On 7th March 1965, Lewis, a twenty-five-year-old, led a group of six hundred peaceful protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Waiting for them in full riot gear were the state troopers of Alabama, authorised by Governor George Wallace, a fervent supporter of segregation. When the troopers commanded the protestors to disperse, they knelt and prayed. In response to this, the state troopers fired tear gas and unleashed their batons in a frenzy.
It came to be known as Bloody Sunday, but the protestors had come prepared to be arrested, not to be attacked with an arsenal of state-sanctioned weapons. A trooper struck Lewis on the head with a baton, cracking his skull.
When Lewis attempted to get up, the trooper hit him again, leaving him unconscious. Seventeen people were hospitalised and many more injured, but none of the suffering and violence was in vain. The appalling footage was broadcast nationwide and millions of US citizens learned about the incivilities of the Civil Rights Movement with greater clarity.
The dream of a ‘beloved community’ – a world without racism, war or poverty.
Eight days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the Voting Rights Bill to Congress and it was signed on 6th August. This was by no means the end, but it presented a significant gain for the Black community: several million Black people were no longer denied the chance to register to vote. Previously they had been forced to undergo arbitrary ‘tests’, such as guessing how many beans were in a jar. These hard-fought votes were put to good use and transformed the way the South was governed.
Lewis was born in 1940 in Troy, Alabama, the third of 10 children to Willie Mae (née Carter) and Eddie Lewis, who were sharecroppers. As a young boy, Lewis harboured aspirations of being a preacher, beginning earnestly by addressing his parish of chickens when he was five.
In 1957, he went on to the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was initiated into activism. He was a founder and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He arranged sit ins at department store lunch counters, which were often met with violent retaliation by white men.
It was at this stage of his life that he first met Martin Luther King Jr., who took him under his wing. Lewis spoke at the 1963 March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, where King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
Lewis was arrested over 40 times between 1960 and 1966. An original Freedom Rider, a series of protests against the upholding of segregation on public buses, he was assaulted at bus stops all over the South for using the ‘Whites only’ segregated loos and waiting rooms. He spent countless nights in prisons across the Deep South, was the victim of many bloody attacks and was devastated by the assassination of King in 1968. But he kept campaigning.
In the same year, he married Lillian Miles, a librarian and activist. They had one son, John-Miles Lewis. Lillian died in 2012.
A life’s work that moved forward racial justice
Lewis lost his first bid for Congress in 1977, but he was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981. On his second attempt, he was elected to the US Congress in 1986 as the Democratic Representative for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. Lewis’ energies were spent building King’s dream of a ‘beloved community’ – a world without racism, war or poverty. Barack Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon him in 2011.
In the last few months of his life when he was suffering from pancreatic cancer, Lewis rejoiced in the Black Lives Matter movement, which made national headlines again after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis policeman in May.
As he put it on CBS in June: ‘It was very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets — to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble’’.
John Robert Lewis, 1940 – 2020. He died on 17th July of pancreatic cancer.