John Lewis - Civil Rights Leader

John Lewis - Civil Rights Leader

Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis joined the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Lewis was a Freedom Rider, spoke at 1963's March on Washington and led the demonstration that became known as "Bloody Sunday."

John Lewis timeline: from poverty to civil rights leader

Born in rural Alabama during the dark days of Jim Crow segregation, representative John Lewis rose from poverty to become a leader of the civil rights movement and later was elected to congress. Here is a timeline of some major events in Lewis life.

John Lewis - Civil Rights Leader - HISTORY

To Rep. John Lewis, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture was more than simply a building. As he explained during the museum’s September 2016 dedication ceremony, “It is a dream come true.”

This sentiment was both an acknowledgement of the century-long campaign to establish a repository of black history on the National Mall and a deeply personal reflection on the time the congressman and civil rights icon, who died Friday at age 80, spent fighting for the museum’s creation. “I introduced the museum bill in every session of Congress for 15 years,” he wrote. “Giving up on dreams is not an option for me.”

Today, the museum is arguably Lewis’ “biggest legacy,” ensuring “that the millions of people who come to the Mall will now see America in a different light,” says Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III.

“The passing of John Lewis marks a signal moment in the history of our country,” adds Spencer Crew, interim director of the African American History Museum. “Called both the compass and the conscience of the Congress, his influence as a moral and political leader is almost impossible to measure. I had the profound honor and good fortune to be part of Congressman Lewis’ last pilgrimage to honor the Selma to Montgomery march. That March and a young John Lewis’ brutal beating catalyzed the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The Congressman was a lifelong catalyst for justice.”

Christopher Wilson, director of experience design at the National Museum of American History’s African American History Program, also underscores the African American History Museum’s centrality in Lewis’ legacy: “The museum exists. And I think that is a tribute to not only John Lewis’ perseverance, . . . but also his understanding that history, in a different but similarly powerful way as nonviolent direct action, [is] power.”

President John F. Kennedy met with the organizers of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Lewis stands sixth from the left, directly to the right of Martin Luther King Jr. (NMAAHC, gift of Kitty Kelley and the estate of Stanley Tretick ©)

Lewis’ contributions to American society spanned more than 60 years of activism and political leadership. He participated in (and in some cases spearheaded) such major civil rights efforts as student sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Freedom Summer and the Selma March. In 1987, he was elected to the House of Representatives as the congressman for Georgia’s 5th District—an office that earned him the title of “the conscience of a nation.” In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Last December, Lewis announced plans to undergo treatment for Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. In a statement, he said: “I have been in some kind of fight—for freedom, equality, basic human rights—for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”

Civil rights leaders pose in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. Lewis appears third from left in the back row. (NMAAHC, gift of Kitty Kelley and the estate of Stanley Tretick © )

The son of sharecroppers, Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama, on February 21, 1940. As a child, he aspired to be a preacher, famously honing his craft by delivering sermons to chickens. But his passions soon shifted to activism, and at age 18, he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, for a personal meeting with Martin Luther King Jr.

Just under two years later, Lewis—then a student at Fisk University in Nashville—was jailed for participating in a sit-in against segregation. His arrest on February 27, 1960, marked the first of more than 40 in his lengthy career of activism.

“We grew up sitting down or sitting in,” Lewis told the Tennessean in 2013. “And we grew up very fast.”

In 1961, the 21-year-old volunteered as a Freedom Rider, traveling across the South in protest of segregated bus terminals. Lewis was the first of the original 13 to face physical violence for attempting to use “whites-only” facilities, but as he later reflected: “We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal. We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had to make up our minds not to turn back.”

Alongside King and minister Jim Lawson, Lewis was one of the most notable advocates of the philosophy of nonviolent action. He didn’t simply adopt it as a tactic, according to Wilson, but rather “took those lessons . . . deep into his heart,” embodying “Gandhian philosophies” in all walks of life.

As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis was the youngest of the “Big Six” behind the 1963 March on Washington. Prior to his death, he was the event’s last surviving speaker.

Though King was just 11 years older than Lewis, many viewed him as the representative of an older generation. “To see John Lewis full of righteous indignation and youthful vigor inspired so many other people who were young to participate in the movement,” says Bunch.

Alabama police officers approach John Lewis (in tan coat) and other activists on "Bloody Sunday" in 1965. (NMAAHC, © 1965 Spider Martin) Alabama state police officers attack civil rights activists on "Bloody Sunday." (NMAAHC, © 1965 Spider Martin) Amelia Boynton Robinson, violently beaten on Bloody Sunday, collapses in a fellow protester's arms. (NMAAHC, © 1965 Spider Martin)

Lewis’ commitment to nonviolence was readily apparent during an event later known as “Bloody Sunday.” On March 7, 1965, he was among some 600 peaceful protesters attacked by law enforcement officers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

“The national news that night showed the horrific footage of a state trooper savagely beating him with a nightstick,” Bunch says in a statement. “But it also showed Mr. Lewis, head bloodied but spirit unbroken, delaying a trip to the hospital for treatment of a fractured skull so he could plead with President [Lyndon B.] Johnson to intervene in Alabama.”

One week after the incident, Johnson offered the Selma protesters his support and introduced legislation aimed at expanding voting rights.

A photograph of the Selma March in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery’s collections depicts Lewis, King and other civil rights leaders standing arm in arm. “Not only are they showing their solidarity,” says the gallery’s senior historian, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, “ . . . but they’re also creating this wall of people in front of the photographers to show that power, show the strength, show the linkage and that unbroken resolve to keep moving forward.”

At the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery on March 25, 1965, civil rights leaders linked arms (from left: Ralph Abernathy, James Forman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse L. Douglas and John Lewis). (NPG, © Steve Schapiro)

The five men’s attire is critical to the portrait’s message: All don suits and ties—clothes “strongly associated with respectability, with masculine power,” Shaw adds. “[This] very specific uniform . . . communicates the aspiration for a social position, the aspiration for a kind of respectability that was often denied black men in the 1960s.”

During the 1970s and 󈨔s, Lewis shifted gears to the political sphere. After an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1977, he spent several years directing President Jimmy Carter’s federal volunteer agency, ACTION. Elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981, he soon made another bid for Congress this time, his efforts were successful.

Over the years, some observers questioned the apparent incongruity between Lewis’ position as a legislator and his defiance of the law as an activist. His response, according to Wilson, was that certain laws were unjust and needed to be broken to effect change. But he emphasized the fact that these rules were still the law, and “if you break those laws, there are consequences.” Adds Wilson, “You have to be willing not only to put yourself out there and make the change, but [to] take responsibility” for the repercussions. Lewis himself adhered to this philosophy of “good trouble” by continuing to attend protests—and undergo arrest—during his time as a congressman.

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III (left) and Rep. John Lewis (right) at the NMAAHC dedication ceremony in September 2016 (NMAAHC)

Lewis’ political career found him fighting “for the rights of women, for the homeless, for the less fortunate,” says Bunch, “so in some ways, [he] is the best example of what the civil rights movement was all about, which was ensuring freedom not just for African Americans, but for all Americans.”

Perhaps the most significant legislative victory of Lewis’ 17 terms in Congress was the passage of a 2003 bill establishing the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Lewis worked closely with Bunch, who served as the museum’s founding director before assuming leadership of the Smithsonian, to build it from the ground up.

“He would sit down with me and help me plot strategy, how do you get the support you need, how are you as visible as you need to be,” Bunch explains. “He was involved spiritually and strategically in almost all aspects of the museum.”

In the congressman’s own words, the museum stands “as a testament to the dignity of the dispossessed in every corner of the globe who yearn for freedom.” As Bunch observes, he spoke about it “as if it was the culmination of the civil rights movement, one of the most important things that he had helped shepherd during his career. . . . His notion that helping to make this museum a reality was the fulfillment of dreams of many generations was just so moving to me and so meaningful.”

Lewis’ activism continued through the end of his life. After protests against police brutality and systemic racism broke out in response to the May 25 killing of George Floyd, Lewis released a statement calling for his fellow Americans “to fight for equality and justice in a peaceful, orderly, non-violent fashion.” In June, he visited Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. and reflected on the current moment in an interview with New York magazine.

John Lewis visits Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. on June 7, 2020. (Photo by Aurora Samperio / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“No, I don’t have any regrets,” Lewis told New York in reference to his move from activist to elected official. “I feel sometimes that there’s much more that we can do, but we’ve got to organize ourselves and continue to preach the politics of hope, and then follow our young people, who will help us get there. And we will get there. We will redeem the soul of America. We will create the loving community in spite of all of the things that we witness.”

Though he was arguably the most prominent surviving leader of the civil rights movement, Lewis always emphasized the contributions of others over his own. His commitment to creating the African American History Museum was emblematic of this mindset, says Bunch: “He understood the power of remembering that the stories were not just of him or of Dr. King, but of people who were famous only to their family. . . . Part of [his] legacy is this sense of recognizing that all kinds of people play a role in shaping a nation and leading change.”

Bunch adds, “That humble nature, that sense of generosity, is really what makes John Lewis special, and that in a way, we are a much better country because of his vision, his leadership and his belief in this nation.”

Echoing this sentiment, Crew concludes, “Beyond any single act, John Lewis will be remembered as a beacon of courage, dignity, and commitment to the highest ideals of the human spirit. His legacy will endure for the ages.”

Read the National Museum of African American History and Culture’​s statement on John Lewis​’​ passing and the National Portrait Gallery’​s In Memoriam tribute.

John Lewis (left) kneels in prayer in 1962 demonstration in front of a "whites only" swimming pool in Cairo, Illinois. (NMAAHC, © Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos)

How John Lewis spent his life bridging America’s racial and political divides

The pioneering civil rights leader was a champion of non-violent protest and change, despite the violence he himself suffered.

Upon learning of the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013, John Lewis offered a moving tribute to South Africa’s first Black president. His written homage offered compelling insight into the minds of both of the storied civil rights leaders.

“The first time I had a chance to meet him was in South Africa after his release from prison. He gave me this unbelievable hug. I will never forget it,” Lewis recalled in a statement released by his congressional office. “He said, ‘John Lewis, I know all about you. You inspired us.’ I said, ‘No, Mr. Mandela, you inspired us.’ I felt unworthy really to be standing at his side. I knew I was in the presence of greatness.”

Few contemporary Americans were better qualified than John Lewis to speak on greatness or reflect on the virtues of leadership and bravery. Before pancreatic cancer claimed him last week at the age of 80, Lewis was the living embodiment of those qualities. Tributes in his honor now abound, while flags fly at half-staff. Lewis is being widely remembered as a towering figure in America’s civil rights movement and the conscience of the United States Congress. However, there’s more to his considerable legacy. Lewis was also a bridge—a human bridge—that history will judge reverently.

The life of Lewis spans America’s violently segregated past, as well as the racially combustible moment we currently occupy. Born the son of Alabama sharecroppers, he was hand-selected by the Congress of Racial Equality to become one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. The riders were an integrated group of young people who rode interstate buses with the intention of directly confronting segregation in public transportation. The practice of segregated seating on buses had been outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1956, but the ban was rarely enforced in the South.

As a result of his activism on bus lines and through his work with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis became the target of frequent physical attacks. He paid a horrendous price in blood and numerous incarcerations for his non-violent advocacy seeking the integration of water fountains, diners, and other staples of daily living. Some of his committed colleagues paid with their lives. Somehow, Lewis survived. He eventually became a justice sentinel recognized by many, including the likes of Mandela.

As his life’s end approached, Lewis remained active and vocal in the pursuit of racial justice. Although his body weakened, he continued to closely examine the nation’s landscape and forcefully speak out against injustice. He recognized that his life’s work must continue, and he seemed to take comfort in the growing coalitions of young Americans committed to challenging systemic racial unfairness. He could clearly see that the bridge his life represented was being navigated by the next generation.

The horror of watching the death of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street this past May transported Lewis back to childhood and the adolescent years before his life became synonymous with a dogged pursuit of social justice. The 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta was also on Lewis’s mind.

“I was 15 years old—just a year older than him. Despite real progress, I can’t help but think of young Emmett today as I watch video after video after video of unarmed Black Americans being killed and falsely accused. My heart breaks,” said Lewis days after Floyd’s death.

But then—just as he had done all of his life—John Lewis provided leadership. Speaking to those actively engaged in the continuing quest for justice, as well as to future leaders in formation, Lewis said:

“My fellow Americans, this is a special moment in our history. Just as people of all faiths and no faiths, and all backgrounds, creeds, and colors banded together decades ago to fight for equality and justice in a peaceful, orderly, non-violent fashion, we must do so again. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive. History has proved time and again that non-violent, peaceful protest is the way to achieve the justice and equality that we all deserve.”

Given the social and racial unrest currently roiling America, the wisdom and patriotism of Lewis has never rung truer. It’s easy or convenient to forget that Lewis—trained in the ways of non-violent confrontation so effectively used by Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—wasn’t always a disciple of carefully nuanced language. However, he always understood the importance of youth—even intemperate youthful energy—in the civil rights arena. Perhaps that’s why he championed the activism of Black Lives Matter, and appeared to view the group as a viable successor to the justice movement.

In early June, well into the final stage of his battle with cancer, Lewis donned a mask and paid a visit to the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., near the White House. He toured the plaza with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and praised the mayor’s embrace of BLM’s call for sustained protest. As he viewed the words Black Lives Matter emblazoned on the street in large yellow letters, he was moved. He described the insignia as a “powerful work of art.” He was confirming yet again his long-held convictions of the power of the young to foment change. (Hear from those calling for racial justice in Washington.)

When he spoke at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963—where King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream Speech”—Lewis, then only 23, had initially planned to address the crowd using language that the march organizers considered inflammatory.

The original ending of Lewis’s speech read: “The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently.” (Here's how Jim Crow laws created "slavery by another name.")

Lewis’s elders in the movement, and the key organizers of the march—including A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and King—insisted that the SNCC leader temper his rhetoric a bit. There were bridges to be built and fragile cross-racial alliances to strengthen in America, where legalized racism remained entrenched. Lewis resisted mightily at first, but he ultimately relented. The crowd of 250,000 people heard the young activist end his speech with these words: “But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.”

A major turning point in the civil rights movement involving Lewis occurred on March 7, 1965. The day is commonly referred to as Bloody Sunday. Lewis and nearly 600 people gathered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and attempted to march across the bridge, named for a Confederate general and reputed grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. The protestors were demanding the elimination of literacy tests and other practices used to deny Blacks the right to vote.

The peaceful demonstration descended into bloody chaos when troopers on horseback wielding bullwhips, rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire, and deploying tear gas charged at the marchers. No deaths resulted that day, but numerous marchers suffered broken bones. Footage televised on national news showed Lewis being cracked in the skull and knocked to the ground by an Alabama state trooper, who struck him a second time as he attempted to rise.

The national outrage was instant and galvanized political support. Less than ten days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, a measure that banned the use of literacy tests and poll taxes that were widely used to prevent blacks from voting in many state and local elections in the South.

Weeks before Lewis died, an online petition was created to rename the Alabama bridge where Bloody Sunday occurred. The renaming effort has drawn considerable social media support, along with the strong endorsement of Lewis’s longtime friend and House of Representative colleague James Clyburn of South Carolina.

However, Lewis may have taken issue with the bridge being offered as a tribute to his legacy. In an newspaper commentary he co-authored with U.S. Representative Terri Sewell in 2015, Lewis spoke against the possible renaming of the Edmund Pettus bridge:

“Renaming the bridge will never erase its history. Instead of hiding our history behind a new name we must embrace it—the good and the bad. The historical context of the Edmund Pettus Bridge makes the events of 1965 even more profound. The irony is that a bridge named after a man who inflamed racial hatred is now known worldwide as a symbol of equality and justice. It is biblical—what was meant for evil, God used for good.”

Now, in the wake of Lewis’s death, many Democratic legislators have renewed their effort to gain passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, passed by the House in 2019. The legislation, which stalled in the Senate, would restore key protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013. Among other things, the legislation seeks to eliminate partisan systems of gerrymandering, limit efforts to purge voting rolls, and ensure the voting rights of felons no longer incarcerated.

John Lewis the civil rights leader: All the badass things he accomplished

John Lewis is one of the original civil rights leaders to emerge out of the 60s. Over the course of his decades-long career, he&rsquos racked up a list of accomplishments so great that if you&rsquove even done half of those things, then you can consider yourself having lived a deeply fulfilling life. It&rsquos a true tragedy that Lewis died over the weekend because it&rsquos one less powerful voice speaking out against the injustices of the world.

And if you&rsquore looking to learn more about civil rights leader and Congressman, John Lewis, then this is the article for you. Lewis was, simply put, a certified badass. The list of his accomplishments is long and absolutely amazing. Here&rsquos everything you need to learn about Lewis&rsquos astonishing career.

The 60s

Over the course of the 60s, John Lewis was heavily involved with the Civil Rights movement. Over the course of the decade, he organized sit-in demonstrations in Nashville, volunteered as a &ldquoFreedom Rider&rdquo (who challenged bus and rail segregation laws), and worked as the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis&rsquo best-known achievement during this era, however, is being of the &ldquoBig Six&rdquo. This group of civil rights leaders organized the 1963 March on Washington. During this March, Lewis was a keynote speaker. Though, of course, the best-known speech of the day is Martin Luther King Jr&rsquos &ldquoI Have a Dream&rdquo.

Lewis&rsquo work continued throughout the 60s. He helped organize two marches from Selma to Montgomery. The first one would have 600 demonstrators and be brutally attacked by police, later being known as &ldquoBloody Sunday&rdquo. The second one saw an original crowd of 3,000 demonstrators grow to 25,000 under the protection of federal troops.

Lewis also co-founded the Southern Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam. He then would move to New York City to become the associate director of the Field Foundation, which focused on improving the lives of those stuck in poverty along with racial equality.

The 70s

From 1970-77, Lewis was the director of the Voter Education Project. This project was an offshoot of the Southern Regional Council&rsquos Community Organization Project, which Lewis oversaw before moving to the VEP. The project, which from 1962-1992, funded voter education, registration, and research efforts in the South, especially in rural areas.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed John Lewis as the Associate Director of ACTION, which was a federal volunteer agency. Lewis served that post until 1980.

The 80s

The 80s is when Lewis&rsquo political career began, starting in 1982 where he was elected as an Atlanta city council member. In 1987, Lewis was elected to the House of Representatives for Georgia&rsquos 5th District. He would hold that post for the remainder of his life.

In 1988, Lewis published his memoir: Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.

Up to the Present Day

The remaining decades of Lewis&rsquo life saw him defend and fight against the injustices that he saw within the world. In 2009, he was arrested outside of the Embassy of Sudan, where he was protesting against the obstruction of aid to refugees in Darfur. Several years earlier, the John R. Lewis Monument was unveiled in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the events of Bloody Sunday.

President Barack Obama would award Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is one of the highest awards given to a civilian in the United States. Recipients of the medal are recognized due to &ldquoan especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors&rdquo

From 2013 to 2016, Lewis helped co-write the graphic novel trilogy March with Andrew Aydin co-writing and Nate Powell illustrating. This series is about the Civil Rights Movement, drawn in black and white, and shown through Lewis&rsquo perspective of that time.

Lewis would lead a sit-in on the House floor in 2016, following the deadly mass shooting at Orlando&rsquos Pulse nightclub, to protest the inaction for stricter gun control legislation and for a vote to prevent those on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns.

Throughout Trump&rsquos presidency, the pair has a contentious relationship. Lewis made it clear that he did not see Trump as a legitimate president and Trump just hated Lewis. This would continue until Lewis&rsquo death from stage 4 pancreatic cancer on July 17, 2020.

Civil rights icon and longtime Georgia Congressman John Lewis has died after a battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old.

The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis was a central figure in the key civil rights battles of the 1960s, including the Freedom Rides and the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march.

Lewis considered his native Alabama hallowed ground because of the blood shed there in pursuit of a transformation of America. For decades, the Democrat led bipartisan congressional delegations on annual pilgrimages to major civil rights sites in the state.

On a 1996 trip, Lewis introduced his colleagues to the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a now-deceased leader of the Birmingham movement.

Together, the two sang the old freedom song "I ain't afraid of your jails."

"And they weren't either," Shuttlesworth said.

"Dr. King was speaking to me"

Lewis was arrested more than 40 times protesting segregation. He was involved in lunch counter sit-ins freedom rides on interstate buses and he was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington.

"We're tired of being beaten by policeman. We're tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again," the 23-year-old Lewis said in a speech at the Lincoln Memorial. "We want our freedom and we want it now!"

In a 1998 interview with NPR, Lewis described being attracted to the movement as a teenager when he first heard about the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.

"I knew then that Dr. King was speaking to me and for me and for so many other people who wanted to find a way to get involved in an effort to end racial segregation and discrimination across the South," he said.

"Means and ends are inseparable"

Lewis grew up on a farm in rural southeast Alabama, where his job was to tend to the chicken coops. He'd faced discrimination as a matter of course, often telling the story of how the public library in Troy, Ala., denied him a library card because of his race.

His activism started in Nashville, when Lewis was in college at Fisk University, where he received a bachelor's degree in Religion and Philosophy. He became a leader in SNCC — the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — and was part of a group of young activists studying the philosophy of nonviolence.

"Some of us came to the conclusion that means and ends are inseparable," he said. "If we are going to create the Beloved Community, an open society, if that is our goal, then the means and methods by which we struggle must be consistent with the goal, with the end we seek."

Lewis said it became both a tactic, and a way of living.

"You never become bitter," Lewis said. "You never become hostile. You never try to demean your opposition."

He stuck by that creed even in the most brutal of circumstances. Most notably, as a co-leader of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march.

Sheriffs' deputies and state troopers attacked the peaceful protesters as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River on March 7, 1965.

Standing on the bridge 50 years later, Lewis described facing a "sea of blue" in an interview with NPR.

"They came forward, beating us with nightsticks, tramping us with horses, releasing the tear gas," Lewis recounted. "I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a night stick. My legs went from under me. I thought I was going to die."

Known as Bloody Sunday, the incident received international news coverage, sparking outrage that ultimately led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

At commemorative events in 2015, his sister, Rosa Tyner described being a little girl and watching her brother on the television news.

"My parents would be back at home praying for him," Tyner said. "Now to see the results of all that. My parents have gone on, but if there is any way they are looking down — all the ancestors — they are very proud of him today."

"We still have many bridges to cross"

Lewis served on the Atlanta city council before being elected to Congress in 1986. He rose in Democratic Party ranks to senior chief deputy whip, and became known as "the conscience of the Congress." Lewis was also a critically acclaimed author. His graphic novel trilogy March won a national book award.

During the 2008 presidential primary, Lewis sparked controversy when he abandoned his long-standing endorsement of Sen. Hilary Clinton.

"As a superdelegate to the Democratic Convention next summer, I will be casting my vote for Barack Obama," he said at the time.

Later, he helped usher passage of President Obama's Affordable Health Care Act in the House, and Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 2016, Lewis actively campaigned for Democrat Hillary Clinton, and after she lost, he refused to attend President Trump's inauguration, citing Russian interference in the election.

"I don't see the president-elect as a legitimate president," he said on NBC's Meet the Press.

Lewis was critical of Trump's nomination of former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, saying at a congressional hearing, "We need someone as attorney general who is going to look out for all of us, not just some of us."

His fighting spirit never waned, even in the face of advanced pancreatic cancer.

"I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community," he said in a statement revealing his diagnosis in December 2019. "We still have many bridges to cross."

Three months later, even as the nation was confronting the coronavirus pandemic, Lewis made a surprise appearance at a reenactment of the bridge crossing in Selma in March 2020.

"I'm not going to give up," he said. "I'm not going to give in."

Surrounded by a crowd of marchers, Lewis urged younger generations to take up the mantle to "help redeem the soul of America."

"Keep the faith," he said. "Keep our eyes on the prize. We must go out and vote like we've never ever voted before."

Why John Lewis Kept Telling the Story of Civil Rights, Even Though It Hurt

John Lewis served in Congress since 1987, representing Georgia in the House of Representatives. But his constituents were far from all the longtime legislator, who died on Friday at age 80, represented.

Lewis was a witness to, participant in and survivor of some of the most pivotal moments of the American civil rights movement: he gave a speech at the 1963 March on Washington he marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965 he took part in more recent acts of resistance. In a movement in which so many great lights were extinguished early, his longevity left him to serve as a de facto spokesman for what he saw.

But it&rsquos not by chance that Lewis&rsquo name is tied so closely to the nation&rsquos still-visceral memories of those moments. Throughout his life, the Congressman spoke often about his purposeful quest to tell and retell the story of what he had been through, so that nobody could forget. He turned his experiences into bestselling books and share-worthy speeches and even a catchphrase &mdash and he did so with intention.

In 2017, Lewis spoke to TIME for the magazine&rsquos 10 Questions feature. In this previously unpublished excerpt from the conversation, Lewis explained why he kept telling his story, even though it wasn&rsquot easy for him:

You&rsquove talked about the importance of telling the story [of the civil rights movement] over and over again, and how it affects the people who hear it. But how does telling that story again and again affect you?

Yes, when I tell the story, and I tell it over and over again, even for hundreds and thousands of students, to little children and adults who come to the office or when I&rsquom out on the road speaking, it affects me &mdash and sometimes it brings me to tears. But I think it&rsquos important to tell it. Maybe it will help educate or inspire other people so they too can do something, they too can make a contribution.

I went up to Rochester, N.Y., back in October, with a colleague of mine, Louise Slaughter, who represents Rochester. [Slaughter died in March of 2018.] And I went to a church that Frederick Douglass had attended, an African American Methodist church, and I went to a house called the Motherhouse. Two of the nuns that took care of us at the hospital in Selma when we were beaten on March 7, 1965, they retired there. These two nuns are feeble, up in age, but they recognized me and they called me John and I called them sisters. There were many other nuns sitting around and they started crying and I cried with them and hugged them, and they showed me this stained glass that was taken from the chapel of the hospital in Selma, which is now closed, and they&rsquod brought it to Rochester. And we stood there and did a song and a hymn.

It&rsquos uplifting and it&rsquos powerful to me to tell the story and to respond to people asking questions. It makes us all stronger and more determined.

I&rsquove heard that one of the catalysts that inspired you to run for office was the run of terrible things that happened at the end of the 1960s, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. What&rsquos the key to responding to terrible things by taking action rather than just collapsing?

You have to pull up on the best in the human spirit. You just say “I&rsquom not going to be down.” You have what I call an executive session with yourself. You could say, “Listen self, listen John Lewis, you&rsquore just not going to get lost in a sea of despair. You&rsquore not going to be down. You&rsquore going to get up.”

The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy was the saddest time in my life. I admired both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. I admired those two men. Martin Luther King Jr. had taught me how to stand up, to speak up and speak out, and how to get involved. When I first met him, he called me the Boy from Troy, and up until the time of his death, he still referred to me as the Boy from Troy, because I grew up outside of Troy, Alabama. And I met Robert Kennedy for the first time in 1963, when I was 23 years old, before the March on Washington. And he was so inspiring, so uplifting. In my Washington office, I have a picture with him when he was Attorney General, from a campaign poster from 1968. These two young leaders, I thought, represented the very best of America. And when Dr. King was assassinated, I was with Bobby Kennedy when we heard. And as a matter of fact, it was Bobby Kennedy that announced at this campaign rally at Indianapolis, Indiana, to the crowd. As I was working on this campaign, trying to get people to come out to the rally, he said, we have some bad news tonight, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I heard that he&rsquod been shot but we didn&rsquot know his condition.

And I really felt when the two of them died that something died in America. Something died in all of us. And sometimes we never recover from situations like these. I became convinced in myself that I had to do something, I had to pick up where Dr. King left off and Bobby Kennedy left off.

One of the civil rights-era experiences that Lewis often recounted, as he told what he had been through, was the experience of hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak on the radio when Lewis was a teenager. Lewis felt, he would say, that King was speaking directly to him, telling him to get involved &mdash and that the “spirit of history” was moving through him, too. The spirit of history told him that the moment was right to stand up, and that the time had come to take his place in the story of the world.

Now, as America remembers a civil rights leader who protected and advanced that legacy in the decades after King’s assassination, it seems safe to say that the spirit was right.

Why John Lewis didn’t want the Edmund Pettus Bridge renamed

Civil-rights leaders were too busy making history to worry about bridge names and statues.

Sean Collins US correspondent

Praise has been pouring in for John Lewis, the hero of the civil-rights movement, who died at the weekend. Lewis’s death has also led to a campaign to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, after the civil-rights icon. A petition has nearly 500,000 signatures, and high-profile backers like Ava DuVernay, who made the film Selma.

In March 1965, Lewis was one of the leaders of the march for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where he and other marchers were met by police who brutally beat them with clubs. The day became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ and galvanised Americans’ support for the Voting Rights Act.

The call to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge is very much in line with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement’s idea of what it means to be anti-racist: to rename places, topple statues and erase symbols and words of the past. And if anyone would seem to deserve de-throning, Edmund Pettus would certainly qualify. He was both a Confederate general and a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as a US senator.

Yet, in the rush to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge after John Lewis, today’s movement overlooks something quite important: that Lewis himself was strongly opposed to renaming it. It would be ironic – and not in a good way – if this movement succeeded to do what Lewis sought to prevent during his lifetime.

With so many today endorsing this desire to eliminate any sign of the past, Lewis’s arguments for keeping the Edmund Pettus Bridge’s name are vital. In a 2015 editorial co-authored with Alabama congresswoman Terri Sewell, Lewis called on us to embrace history:


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‘The Edmund Pettus Bridge symbolises both who we once were, and who we have become today… Renaming the bridge will never erase its history. Instead of hiding our history behind a new name we must embrace it – the good and the bad. The historical context of the Edmund Pettus Bridge makes the events of 1965 even more profound. The irony is that a bridge named after a man who inflamed racial hatred is now known worldwide as a symbol of equality and justice. It is Biblical – what was meant for evil, God uses for good.’

Seeking to wipe out the history of the Confederacy and Jim Crow, as the BLM-inspired attacks on symbols of the past do, lessens the significance – the enormity – of what Lewis and his civil-rights movement overcame. The scale of their achievement is brought home when you truly recognise the forces they were up against, for decades. This is what I think Lewis was getting at when he argued for not compromising the ‘historical integrity’ of the movement:

‘We can no more rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge than we can erase this nation’s history of racial intolerance and gender bias. Changing the name of the bridge would compromise the historical integrity of the voting-rights movement. We must tell our story fully rather than hide the chapters we wish did not exist, for without adversity there can be no redemption. Children should be taught the context of the events that unfolded on the bridge, and why its name is emblematic of the fight for the very soul of this nation – the democratic values of equality and justice.’

Lewis and Sewell ended their piece with a plea to keep the Edmund Pettus Bridge’s name so that future generations learn ‘the unvarnished truth’:


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‘We must resist the temptation to revise history. The Edmund Pettus name represents the truth of the American story. You can change the name but you cannot change the facts of history. As Americans we need to learn the unvarnished truth about what happened in Selma. In the end, it is the lessons learned from our past that will instruct our future. We should never forget that ordinary people can collectively achieve social change through the discipline and philosophy of nonviolence.’

As it happens, Lewis is not the only civil-rights veteran to oppose the effort to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Selma native Lynda Lowery, who was 14 years old when she was beaten by police on Bloody Sunday, doesn’t want the bridge renamed, either. She says the bridge ‘isn’t a monument, it’s a part of history’. The now 70-year-old adds: ‘They need to leave my bridge alone.’ Lowery’s sister, Jo Ann Bland, says there is something empowering about the bridge’s name for black people, who still cross the bridge each year to commemorate the events of 1965. They literally walk over Pettus. ‘What happened on that bridge changed the whole meaning of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, of Edmund Pettus to me’, she says. ‘I bet he’s rolling in his grave every time we walk across that bridge.’

Indeed, it is worth asking a question that is rarely considered today: if toppling statues and renaming places is so seemingly essential to opposing racism, as the BLM movement contends, why was that never an aim of the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s? After all, Confederate statues – including those introduced in the 20th century with the purpose of intimidating black Americans – had been in place for decades, so surely the civil-rights campaigners knew all about them. So too with other symbols of the past.

The short answer is that the civil-rights movement was a serious anti-racism movement, fighting to bring about real change in society, while BLMers are obsessed with symbols and virtue-signaling. Selma’s current mayor, Darrio Melton, says that what the Bloody Sunday marchers in 1965 ‘exemplified for us was the system needed to be changed, more than the symbols needed to be changed’. Indeed, to discuss the civil-rights veterans in today’s terminology is to reduce them to BLM-style playactors. ‘I believe to get bogged down in a conversation about symbols is to miss the entire struggle for which they fought’, says Melton. ‘They weren’t marching to change a symbol. They were marching to change a system.’

Lewis, Martin Luther King and their compatriots were too busy making history – making the future – to sit around dreaming up new names for places or parade around town tearing down the symbols of the past. The civil-rights fighters didn’t seek a therapeutic boost to self-esteem by shouting about how morally superior they were compared with people from hundreds of years before they were too focused on their present, trying to change laws and improving social conditions.

To honor John Lewis’s memory, and fulfill his wishes, keep the Edmund Pettus Bridge’s name. Let it fill you with awe for all that Lewis was able to overcome, and gratitude for his tremendous efforts to drive American history towards its promise of equality.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

14 Inspiring Quotes About Justice and Equality From Civil Rights Icons Past and Present

From Malcolm X to John Lewis, Rosa Parks to Alicia Garza, the words of these activists move us to keep fighting.

Malcolm X holds up a paper for the crowd to see during a rally in New York City on Aug. 6, 1963. (Image: AP Photo)

Malcolm X was shot and killed 56 years ago, on Feb. 21, while addressing a crowd in New York City’s Audubon Ballroom. His death sent shockwaves across the country, and three people were quickly arrested — including Muhammad A. Aziz (then Norman 3X Butler) and Khalil Islam (then Thomas 15X Johnson), who have always maintained their innocence. The Innocence Project and civil rights attorney David Shanies are working to reinvestigate their convictions.

That same day, a young Black organizer from Alabama named John Lewis turned 25. Only a few months later, Lewis would make history by leading protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and would himself become a civil rights icon.

Their struggles — and the struggles of countless Black Americans — helped advance justice and equality in the United States. But, despite this progress in voting rights and desegregation, the fight for fair and equal treatment of Black people across this country continues today.

At the Innocence Project, we work daily to advance justice and equality for all because as Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And through our work to free the innocent, prevent wrongful conviction, and hold the system accountable, we strive to bend that arc closer to justice.

Add your name to support justice for Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam
Add your name to support justice for Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam

This Black History Month, as we reflect on the progress that has been made since the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights Act, we also recognize the long way left to go. And we celebrate those who helped bring us to where we are today, as well as those who are continuing the fight to end racism and inequality today.

These powerful quotes from civil rights leaders and current-day activists remind us why we must keep pushing forward.

Malcolm X on action

“I for one believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program, and when the people create a program, you get action.” — Malcolm X

John Lewis on justice and democracy

“A democracy cannot thrive where power remains unchecked and justice is reserved for a select few. Ignoring these cries and failing to respond to this movement is simply not an option — for peace cannot exist where justice is not served.” — John Lewis said of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

Martin Luther King, Jr., on injustice

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

An Innocent Man Spent 20 Years in Prison for Malcolm X’s Murder
An Innocent Man Spent 20 Years in Prison for Malcolm X’s Murder
James Baldwin on justice

“If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! — and listens to their testimony.” — Baldwin, No Name on the Street

Angela Davis on incarceration

“Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo — obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other.” — Angela Davis, Angela Davis: An Autobiography

Shirley Chisholm on racism and unconscious bias

“Racism is so universal in this country, so widespread, and deep-seated, that it is invisible because it is so normal.” ― Shirley Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed

Toni Morrison on racism

“The very serious function of racism…is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary .” — Toni Morrison, A Humanist View

Thurgood Marshall on democracy

“Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.” — Thurgood Marshall, 1978 University of Virginia commencement speech

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., on progress

“Press forward at all times, climbing forward toward that higher ground of the harmonious society that shapes the laws of man to the laws of God.” — Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Rosa Parks on her legacy

“I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people.” ― Rosa Parks said on her 77th birthday

Fannie Lou Hamer on liberation

“When I liberate myself, I liberate others. If you don’t speak out ain’t nobody going to speak out for you.” — Fannie Lou Hamer

Harry Belafonte on racism and the legacy of slavery

“Although slavery may have been abolished, the crippling poison of racism still persists, and the struggle still continues.” — Harry Belafonte, 2010 rally in Washington, D.C.

Muhammad Ali on activism

“I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.” — Muhammad Ali, 1976

Alicia Garza on power and oppression

“I learned that racism, like most systems of oppression, isn’t about bad people doing terrible things to people who are different from them but instead is a way of maintaining power for certain groups at the expense of others.” ― Alicia Garza, The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart

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U.S. House Sit-In Leader John Lewis Moved by 'Spirit of History'

T he rare sit-in staged Wednesday by Democrats on the floor of the U.S. House&mdashled by Rep. John Lewis&mdashmirrors a precedent established by his long career in politics and activism, which began with sit-ins at segregated lunch counters during the civil rights movement.

“We were moved by what I call the spirit of history to find a way to get in the way,” Lewis said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday, describing the effort to push for gun control legislation.

That phrase, “get in the way,” has been a recurring rallying cry for Lewis through his decades of activism.

In a commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis last month, the Democratic Congressman from Georgia recalled his parents and grandparents telling him not to cause trouble over segregation. “Don&rsquot get in the way. Don&rsquot get in trouble,” they said. It was advice he resisted.

Watch the sit-in live below:

“The action of Rosa Parks and the words and leadership of Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] inspired me to find a way to get in the way,” Lewis told the graduates. “I got in the way. I got in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.”

During the speech, he praised sit-ins as a means for change. “We start sitting in. By sitting in, by sitting down, we were standing up for the very best in American tradition,” he said.

Lewis, who was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966, has traced the beginning of his involvement in the civil rights movement to a mass sit-in in Nashville in February 1960.

“It was a great feeling it was my first real act of protesting against this system of segregation,” he said in a 1973 interview with the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I sort of had this feeling for some time that you just wanted to strike a blow for freedom and this was a great sense of pride to be able to sit down and at the same time become part of an organized effort.”

In that interview, Lewis said it wasn’t until the sit-ins of 1960 that he saw “every segment of the black community” get involved in desegregation efforts. The visuals provided by the sit-ins helped the movement. “We wanted them to see us,” he wrote in his memoir, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.

As with much of the civil disobedience that fueled progress in the civil rights movement, Lewis’s involvement in efforts to end segregation involved knowingly violating the laws that enforced it. He was beaten by mobs and arrested by police.

And on Wednesday&mdashmore than 55 years after he first led lunch counter sit-ins&mdashLewis and his Democratic colleagues technically broke rules that forbid anyone from taking photos or video inside the House chamber, staying in place for a sit-in after the House had been called into recess.

“Sometimes you have to violate a rule, a law, to uphold a greater law, a moral law,” Lewis said Wednesday on CNN. “We have a right to sit down or sit in to engage in nonviolent protest. It is always right to do right.&rdquo

Watch the video: Οι κορυφαίες γκάφες του Κυριάκου Μητσοτάκη