John Lewis (1940-2020)

John Lewis, Democratic congressman from Georgia, in front of the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, DC., October 4, 2017

For good reasons Representative John Lewis was called a civil-rights icon. As much as any other civil rights leader, he carried the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr. Lewis died of pancreatic cancer at age 80 this July, having served more than three decades in the U.S. House of Representatives. John Lewis’s life—which former President Obama, at Lewis’s funeral, described as “a lesson in the fierce urgency of now”—is full of highlights from the historic struggle for racial justice:

  • He was one of the Freedom Riders, activists who challenged segregation in interstate travel in the South in 1961;
  • He helped found and lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters;
  • He helped organize the March on Washington in 1963, where, echoing King, he spoke passionately of protesting “until the revolution of 1776 is complete”;
  • He led the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, surviving a beating inflicted by Alabama state troopers that fractured his skull;
  • He led numerous other demonstrations against segregation in public facilities, in the face of violent attacks by officers of the law and vigilantes alike.

Lewis’s work for the dignity, freedom, and equality of Black Americans led him to enter politics. In 1981, he won election to the Atlanta City Council, and then six years later, to the House of Representatives as a representative from Georgia. Lewis was strongly liberal and was not without his political enemies. He continued to lead nonviolent protests when the occasion demanded—such as against South Africa’s apartheid or the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. In reaction to the tragic death of George Floyd in police custody, Lewis urged, “Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive. History has proven time and again that non-violent, peaceful protest is the way to achieve the justice and equality that we all deserve.”

Image credits: © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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