Reflecting On The Life And Legacy of Civil Rights Icon John Lewis

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Civil rights activist John Lewis and U.S. lawmaker John Lewis spent his entire life fighting for justice (Credit: Apple.com)

American civil rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA) passed away on July 17, 2020, following a seven-month battle with pancreatic cancer. The 80-year-old dedicated his life to building what he called "The Beloved Community" in America — first as a civil rights leader and then as a lawmaker advocating, for reforms on issues from gun control to health care.

"The world is a better place because John Lewis spent his life pursuing freedom, justice, opportunity, love, and peace for all of humanity," Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop said during a House bipartisan remembrance for Mr. Lewis. "He inspired us as the conscience of Congress."

Republican Rep. Tom Graves added to the tribute, saying, "Our nation has indeed lost a giant. It's times like these that we must be reminded of the shoulders that we stand on, the shoulders of giants like John, I'm better off because of John Lewis. … Our nation is so much better because of John Lewis."

John Lewis (fourth from left) and other civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy after the March on Washington, DC in 1963 (Credit: Cecil W. Stoughton / Public domain)

Born in 1940 in rural Alabama, Mr. Lewis was the son of sharecroppers — tenant farmers who gave a part of each crop as rent — during a time when African Americans were considered second-class citizens. Growing up, Mr. Lewis aspired to be a preacher. However, inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK, Jr.) and anger at the Jim Crow laws, which mandated segregation between whites and black Americans in schools and public places in the southern states, caused him to become a civil rights activist instead.

Mr. Lewis's first encounter with law enforcement came in February 1960, when he and several other black students got into a fight with white patrons while protesting racist policies by sitting at a department store "whites-only" lunch counter in Nashville.

"I didn't necessarily want to go to jail," he recalled in a 1973 interview for the Southern Oral History Program. "But we knew…it would help solidify the student community and the Black community as a whole. The student community did rally. The people heard that we had been arrested, and before the end of the day, five hundred students made it into the downtown area to occupy other stores and restaurants. At the end of the day, ninety-eight of us were in jail."

The peaceful sit-ins worked as hoped. By April that year, lunch counters in Nashville were open to all, but Mr. Lewis's efforts were just beginning.

The Obama family, Mr. Lewis, and hundreds of others walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday (Credit: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson/Obamawhitehouse.archives.gov)

The young activist rapidly emerged as one of the Big Six leaders of the civil rights movement — a group that included MLK Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young. He rose to national prominence on March 7, 1965. On that fateful day, Mr. Lewis led more than 600 civil rights advocates on a 54-mile march from Salem, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery to urge lawmakers to allow African American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote. The peaceful demonstrators, however, were stopped by a row of state troopers at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and ordered to return home. When they refused to budge, the officials used tear gas and batons, mercilessly injuring fifty activists including Mr. Lewis. However, their sacrifice did not go in vain. "Bloody Sunday", which was televised live, brought the nation's attention to the unjust law and instigated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark federal achievement of the civil rights movement.

Mr. Lewis's determination to bring reform to the country continued after he was elected the U.S. Representative of Georgia's Fifth Congressional District in 1986. The lawmaker, who was re-elected 16 times, spent his 33 years in Congress fighting for initiatives like better education and healthcare for the underprivileged, and gun control reform. He also co-wrote a series of graphic novels about the civil rights movement, for which he won the National Book Award in 2016. Former President Barack Obama recognized Mr. Lewis's relentless pursuit of justice by bestowing him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 2011.

The civil rights icon will be laid to rest on July 30, 2020, at Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, following a six-day "celebration of life." The themed memorials will include stops in Troy, Selma — where Mr. Lewis will cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge one last time — and Montgomery, Ala., as well as Washington, DC. His casket will be available for public viewing at each location, allowing fans to pay their respects to the civil rights hero one last time.

Mr. Lewis and Reverend C.T. Vivian, who also passed away on July 17, 2020, were both awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama (Credit: Official White House Photo/ Obamawhitehouse.archives.gov)

To honor his legacy, many Americans and politicians are urging lawmakers to restore Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. It required states and localities with a history of discrimination against minority voters to get a "pre-clearance" from the federal government before making any changes to their voting policies.

Reverend C.T. Vivian, another civil rights leader and one of Mr. Lewis’s collaborators, also died on July 17, 2020, at the age of 95. Known by many as “The Quiet Warrior,” he was a close friend and confidant of MLK Jr. and spent his life campaigning for equality and justice. The clergyman, who was considered one of the greatest preachers of his generation, was laid to rest at Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, on July 23, 2020.

Though the activists may be gone, their fight for justice and equality for all must continue. As Mr. Lewis once said, "Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble,"

R.I.P. Mr. John Lewis and Reverend C.T. Vivian

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85 Comments
  • abbygreatsarahr
    abbygreatsarahrTuesday, September 15, 2020 at 11:09 am
    #Black Lives Matter It does not matter of the color of any ones skin! "Treat people the way you treat yourself!I feel heart broken😭😭😭
    • amers
      amersSaturday, September 12, 2020 at 7:33 am
      R.I.P This is NOT okay!!!!! It does not matter what color of skin people are. You know that phrase: " Treat people the way you would want to be treated." Well, now is the time to follow that phrase.
      • aqula
        aqulaTuesday, September 8, 2020 at 6:29 am
        john lewis was a good man and so was martin luther king and always remember black lives matter.
        • imunicornlover1
          imunicornlover1Sunday, August 30, 2020 at 7:00 pm
          R.I.P John Lewis! you will be forever missed! :'(
          • pastelsunsetz
            pastelsunsetzWednesday, August 26, 2020 at 10:49 am
            BLACK LIVES MATTER: from the beginning of time, people of color have been abused, made fun of, tortured, and put to slavery. ALL because of the color of their skin. Segregation is the separation between black people, and white people. In the 1950s Whites, and people of color were kept separate. people of color were not allowed to go in some stores, aThis is terrible. And very sad, and unfair. To this day, People of color are STILL treated differently JUST because of the color of their skin! So please note: "It does not matter the color of your skin, folks of color should always, remember that they have a place on this world, and that they belong. It does not matter If your black or white, you are amazing, just the way you are". Ruby Bridges, harriet tubman, and more all helped black people, and will be known forever in history.
            • monket
              monketWednesday, September 9, 2020 at 8:37 am
              It really really unfair because everyone was born equal
              • wolfieland
                wolfielandMonday, August 31, 2020 at 7:28 am
                amazing speech
                • imunicornlover1
                  imunicornlover1Tuesday, September 1, 2020 at 12:03 pm
                  I totally agree with u amazing speech! :)
                  • pastelsunsetz
                    pastelsunsetzSaturday, September 12, 2020 at 11:17 am
                    thank you so much!
                • pastelsunsetz
                  pastelsunsetzFriday, August 28, 2020 at 4:59 am
                  #WEARESTRONG
                • kraft_kat1
                  kraft_kat1Monday, August 24, 2020 at 7:54 pm
                  RIP John Lewis. you did so much to help change the countries view on things like race. Thank you
                  • janan10
                    janan10Saturday, August 22, 2020 at 6:15 am
                    Skiin courl don't matter Give a thumbs up if you agree or please follow me 😎
                    • monket
                      monketWednesday, September 9, 2020 at 8:34 am
                      you are totally right it does not matter what skin color you are awesome no matter what.
                    • janan10
                      janan10Saturday, August 22, 2020 at 6:12 am
                      R.I.P you did a good thing John lewis
                      • teachsdaughter
                        teachsdaughterFriday, August 21, 2020 at 5:00 pm
                        His life and legacy will live on in time.
                        • hanser
                          Davida EnserWednesday, August 12, 2020 at 5:01 am
                          Never forget that people like us matter. BLACK LIVES MATTER!!!✋✋
                          • belle10
                            belle10Monday, August 17, 2020 at 11:38 am
                            i agree. black lives do matter!