An American hero. A mover and shaker in the Civil Rights movement. Congressman John Lewis left a legacy that will far outlive his 80 years. On July 17, 2020 the fighter for justice and equality passed away. He is remembered for his relentless fight for human rights as well as leading the famous 1965 march in Selma, Alabama which garnered support for the Voting Rights Act.
Born the son of African American sharecroppers in rural Alabama in 1940, Lewis grew up in a segregated education system and society. He was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and the Montgomery bus boycott to be an active participant in the Civil Rights movement. Pushing for human and racial equality became his life’s calling. As a student at Fisk University, young Lewis went toe-to-toe with the institution of segregation by organizing sit-in demonstrations at Tennessee lunch counters. To further his fight in this dangerous battle, Lewis participated in Freedom Rides, sitting in seats reserved for white patrons on segregated busses. He continued to challenge the Jim Crow laws of the South that were put in place to disenfranchise African American citizens and separate racial groups.
At the tender age of twenty-three, Lewis, then widely known as a nonviolent activist, was a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in 1963. Along with his hero and main speaker, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he spoke in favor of true freedom, equal rights, peaceful marches and swifter action. The young advocate continued to confront the issues of racism, segregation, injustice and inequality. However, this did not come without the battle scars to show for it. At various protests and peaceful demonstrations, Lewis was consistently beaten, burned, spat upon and abused by law enforcement and white mobs. As a true testament of his dedication and diligence, Lewis never backed down despite the blows.
Lewis’s spirit of determination was most evident and remembered when he and other Civil Rights leaders led over 600 peaceful protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Although this began as a peaceful endeavor, the event has been permanently coined “Bloody Sunday.” Law enforcement and troopers brutally attacked marchers, Lewis being one of them. Due to the photographed and televised images of this protest and its effects, viewers were appalled. This galvanized a quicker passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration.
The Voting Rights Act not only opened doors for more African-Americans to make their voices heard in democracy — but it gave African Americans a greater drive to run for political offices. Lewis jumped at the chance to run. He was first elected to the Atlanta City Council, advocating for neighborhood preservation and ethics in government. In 1986, he was the second African American Congressman elected from Georgia since the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. He continued to represent Georgia and the nation at-large in the fight against injustice. Congressman John Lewis will be remembered for his tenacity, strong will and peaceful approach to activism. Most importantly, the effects of the enormous role he played in the Civil Rights movement from the 1960s to the present era, will be felt for generations to come.
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