Tags: civilrights, johnlewis, mlk, politics
Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images
Today marks the passing of a Civil Rights legend and national American icon — the great John Lewis. Today marked the end of a 5-day celebration of Rep Lewis’ life with a funeral service that spoke to his life, mission and purpose.
Three Presidents (Clinton, Bush, Obama) spoke and Pres. Obama “declared Lewis’ lifelong battle for racial equality to be ongoing and stated explicitly that forces in power today are working to undermine it.” As CNN, notes: “Drawing a direct line between the bridge in Selma, Alabama, where Lewis was bloodied by state troopers in 1965 and the protests this summer following police killings of Black Americans, Obama delivered his most forceful address since leaving office, casting the actions of his successor — who avoided any in-person remembrances for Lewis, though three of his four living predecessors made the journey — as corrosive for democracy. “We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar to cast a ballot, but even as we sit here there are those in power that are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting,” Obama said, hours after President Donald Trump suggested on Twitter that November’s presidential contest be delayed because of the unproven potential for fraud.
John Lewis summoned the spirit and the soul of the nation beyond the grave when the New York Times published his final essay titled “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation”:
“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.
That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.
Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.
Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.
Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.
Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.
You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.
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.
When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
The life of the US congressman John Lewis, who has died aged 80 after suffering from pancreatic cancer, is a paradigm for the history of race relations in the US over those eight decades. Born into segregation, Lewis took a leadership role in civil rights protest as a young man, and was at the heart of many of the most crucial, and dangerous, events in that movement. He was beaten by the Ku Klux Klan and by the police, jailed repeatedly, and continually forced to move forward while ignoring friendly voices warning him not to push too hard against the apartheid legislated in large parts of America.
As the changes for which he battled came into being, he found himself elected to the US House of Representatives, where he also served in leadership positions, and was called “the conscience of Congress” by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And while he saw a black man elected president, he then watched as many of his movement’s hard-fought gains were walked back by reactionary judges, senators and, indeed, a president.
Right at the start of his campaigning career, as one of the leaders of the Nashville Student Movement in Tennessee, Lewis was arrested multiple times while organising sit-ins against the city’s segregated restaurants and bus services. In 1960, along with a similar student group in Greensboro, North Carolina, he and Nashville colleagues Diane Nash and Marion Barry (a future mayor of Washington) were at the heart of the founding of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”), encouraged by Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but more committed to widespread student-led local action. Other SNCC leaders included the future black power leader Stokely Carmichael and the future Georgia politician Julian Bond, from Morehouse College, in Atlanta.
Lewis was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, organised by the Congress of Racial Equality (Core). Because interstate bus travel was regulated by federal law, which prohibited segregation, the riders looked to force the issue while travelling through southern states in 1961. While trying to use whites-only facilities in a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Lewis became the first rider assaulted, as two men beat and kicked him.
The entire group was attacked in Anniston, Alabama, other buses were set upon and one firebombed. When the Core leader James Farmer moved to discontinue the rides because of the violence, Lewis, Nash and their Nashville group took them over. Lewis eventually spent 40 days in jail in Mississippi, while the attorney general, Robert Kennedy, called for a “cooling-off” period and a halt to the rides.
Becoming chairman of SNCC in 1963 made Lewis one of the “big six” organisers of the March on Washington, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis dropped a key line – “which side is our government on?” – from his own speech, persuaded by the other leaders not to risk offending the Kennedy administration. But the following year, Lewis was at the forefront, literally, of SNCC’s leadership of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, which saw the murders of the civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in Neshoba county.
In 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams led the freedom marchers across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, where they were attacked by state troopers, police and bystanders. The scenes of violence were broadcast across the country, with Lewis bloodied by a baton that fractured his skull. The television interview he gave calling on President Lyndon Johnson to take action could be seen as the crucial moment in winning public support for equal rights.
Lewis left SNCC in 1966 and became chairman of the Voter Education Project, aimed at registering minority voters. In 1977 he ran for the congressional seat in Atlanta vacated by Andrew Young when he became Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations, but he lost the Democratic primary to Wyche Fowler, and instead joined the Carter administration’s Action programme, uniting a number of volunteer schemes including Vista, the domestic version of the Peace Corps. He was elected to the Atlanta city council in 1981, and in 1986, when Fowler left the House to run for the US Senate, Lewis staged a bitter primary fight to replace him against his old colleague, Bond, downplaying the latter’s civil rights activism and accusing him of corruption and drug use.
Lewis won the primary in an upset, then easily took the election in what is a safe Democratic seat. He was re-elected 16 times, never with less than 69% of the vote, running unopposed six times. Considered one of Congress’s most liberal Democrats, he remained fiercely independent. He voted against the first Iraq war, boycotted the inauguration of George W Bush, whose election he considered illegitimate due to voter fraud in Florida, and similarly refused to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2016.
But he also gave Bush his vote for the emergency powers resolution after the 9/11 attack, though he later called for Bush’s impeachment for abusing those powers. Ironically, it was Bush who in 2003 signed into law a bill Lewis had introduced every year since he entered Congress, to establish a Museum of African American History in Washington. His opposition to policy was bipartisan. He also clashed with Bill Clinton a number of times, including over the North American free trade agreement.
Never losing his belief in the power of protest, he was arrested twice at the Sudanese embassy demonstrating against genocide in Darfur, and once outside Congress calling for immigration reform. He led a 26-hour sit-in in the House when the Senate refused to take action on gun control following a 2016 mass shooting in Orlando.
He endorsed Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee for president in 2008, but in February switched his support to Barack Obama, calling his candidacy “a great leap” for America. After Obama’s election, Lewis was asked if this were the fulfilment of King’s dream. He replied: “It’s just a down payment.”
He again endorsed Hillary in 2016, with an ad hominem attack on her rival Bernie Sanders, saying that during his time as chair of SNCC from 1963 to 1965, “I never saw him, I never met him … but I met Hillary Clinton”. This was controversial as Sanders was arrested in 1963 for leading civil rights protests in Chicago, while Hillary at that time was still at school and a supporter of the “states rights” Republican Barry Goldwater.
John was born in Troy, Alabama. His mother, Willie Mae (nee Carter), and father, Eddie Lewis, were sharecroppers in rural Pike county; John often noted that as a small child he had only ever seen two white people. He went to local country schools, then to the segregated Pike county vocational high school, where his studying was hampered by the lack of access to Troy’s whites-only libraries.
Troy State University (now Troy University) was also whites-only, and all-black Morehouse College, where he hoped to study, was too expensive. Considering an attempt to integrate Troy State, Lewis wrote to King, who forwarded the bus fare to Montgomery, Alabama. This meeting with King and Ralph Abernathy ignited Lewis’s lifelong commitment to non-violent protest, but, on their advice, he enrolled at the American Baptist Theological Seminary (now the American Baptist College) in Nashville, where on-campus work could help pay for his tuition. Eventually, he transferred and took his degree in religion and philosophy at nearby Fisk University.
Lewis’s 1998 autobiography Walking With the Wind (written with Michael D’Orso) was followed by a 2012 memoir, Across That Bridge (written with Brenda Jones). He had huge success with a best-selling graphic novel trilogy, March (2013-17), co-written with Andrew Aydin, which has become a standard teaching tool about the civil rights movement.
Dawn Porter’s just-released documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble moves between the civil rights activism of the 1960s and footage of Lewis on the campaign trail for the 2018 midterm elections. The “good trouble” insistence on the need for non-violent struggle against injustice and shaky institutions remains a constant, notably in relation to voter suppression, a main issue, particularly in Georgia, for the 2020 elections.
Lewis’s philosophy might be summed up in a question he asked while opposing Bill Clinton’s neoliberal welfare “reform” bill in 1996: “Where is the sense of decency? What does it profit a great nation to conquer the world, only to lose its soul?” That he lived to see Confederate monuments topple as a vast majority of the nation rose in protest supporting the Black Lives Matter movement after the police murder of George Floyd was a tribute to his life of struggle.
His wife, Lillian Mills, whom he met at a New Year’s Eve party and married in 1968, died in 2012. He is survived by his son, John-Miles.
• John Robert Lewis, politician and civil rights leader, born 21 February 1940; died 17 July 2020
• This article was amended on 22 July 2020 because John Lewis was one of the leaders of the Nashville Student Movement in Tennessee, not the leader as an earlier version said.
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