John Robert Lewis

Congresman John Lewis, official photo (U.S. House of Representatives; photo in the public domain)

The Honorable John Robert Lewis (1940–2020), an icon of the American Civil Rights Movement and a "congressman with a conscience," at a young age chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in his effort to attain voting rights for Black Americans. It was the March 7, 1965 televised image of his being bludgeoned in the head by an Alabama law enforcement official and other protestors being beaten during the walk from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge—and ever after referred to as Bloody Sunday—that hastened the passage of the Voting Rights Act on August 6th of that same year. He became known as the man who called for people to engage in "good trouble" to change the status quo.

Born in Troy, Alabama, to sharecroppers, he earned a bachelor's degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University (1967). Although his parents encouraged him to ignore the injustices of the Jim Crow South, the power of the living messages of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired him to become active in the emerging Civil Rights Movement. At Fisk, he studied nonviolent protest, participated in lunch counter sit-ins, and ultimately suffered many beatings and arrests for his persistent involvement in the Freedom Rides to desegregate bus terminals in the South. By 1963, although he was just twenty-three years old, he was considered to be one of the "Big Six" of the Civil Rights Movement, along with Dr. King, James Farmer, Asa Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young. That year, standing alongside Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, he delivered a keynote address. In 1964, during the Freedom Summer Project, he oversaw the SNCC's effort to register African-American voters in Mississippi.

The next year, on March 7th, again in support of voting rights, John and Hosea Williams led about 600 peaceful demonstrators on a march from Selma to the Capitol building in Montgomery. While still in Selma, they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which crosses the Alabama River, but were beaten back by a large group of state troopers, sheriff's deputies, and deputized civilians (posse men) who who were following the orders of Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace to “take whatever means necessary” to prevent the march. The law enforcement troops gave the marchers two minutes to disperse before setting upon them. With some of the posse men on horseback, the troops quickly doused the peaceful marchers with tear gas, overran them with their horses, and attacked them with bullwhips and billy clubs. More than 50 demonstrators were hospitalized. John's skull was fractured, but he spoke to television reporters before going to the hospital, calling on President Lyndon Johnson to take action in Alabama. When the interviewer's footage aired on national television, millions of Americans witnessed the event, which became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Demonstrations in support of the marchers took to the streets in 80 American cities, resulting in heightened awareness and, ultimately, contributing to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act, which President Johnson signed into law on August 6, 1965.

After leaving the SNCC, John remained in Atlanta and remained active in the civil rights movement as the director of the Voter Education Project. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter, a fellow Georgian, appointed John to lead ACTION, an umbrella federal volunteer agency that included the Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). In 1981, John ran for elective office in Atlanta, becoming a city councilman. In 1985, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where, for seventeen terms, he represented the 5th Congressional District of Georgia, which included Atlanta. A Democrat, he was the dean of the Georgia congressional delegation.

During his life, he received more than fifty honorary doctorate degrees and many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2011, from President Barrack Obama), the Lincoln Medal from the Ford's Theatre Society (2007), the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement (2004), the NAACP Spingarn Medal (2002), and the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award (2001). He also was an award-winning author, having written (with Andrew Aydin) the March trilogy (2013, 2015, 2016—National Book Awards and others), which is part of the core curriculum in school systems throughout the United States for teaching the Civil Rights Movement. His other books include Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998, with Michael D'Orso, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Robert F. Kennedy Book Award) and Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change (2011, with Brenda Jones, NAACP Image Award for Best Literary Work–Biography),

In December 2019, he announced that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died on July 17, 2020, in Atlanta. His Celebration of Life commenced on Saturday, July 25th in Troy, where people from his hometown celebrated "The Boy from Troy," beginning with a public memorial at Troy University’s Trojan Arena and concluding with his body lying in repose. Later that same day, a service was held at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church is Selma, the same church where John and other protesters were treated following the Bloody Sunday walk from Selma to Montgomery, and his body lay in repose outside the chapel that evening. The next day, Sunday, July 26th, the day of "Good Trouble," John crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge one last time. State officials met his casket at the Alabama Capitol building in Montgomery, where his body lay in state that evening. Monday and Tuesday, July 27th and 28th, the days honoring the "Conscience of Congress," included a private ceremony inside the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., followed by a public viewing on the East Plaza both days. Wednesday and Thursday, July 29th and 30th, celebrated "Atlanta's Servant Leader," where his body lay in state in the Georgia Capitol Rotunda before moving to the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church for his funeral. Three former U.S. presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—eulogized John at the funeral. Obama, called John a man of “unbreakable perseverance” and said that he embodied “that most American of ideas— that idea that any of us ordinary people, without rank or wealth or title or fame, can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals.”

Before his death, John had arranged with the New York Times to have his final words printed in the newspaper on the day of his funeral. In that essay he said, "Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring."

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