John Robert Lewis, who was born as the son of humble sharecroppers in the South made a huge impact on the birth and progress of the US Civil Rights Movement. He was a proud and outspoken advocate of the Movement and was there for many of the biggest moments. Lewis survived a brutal beating at the hands of police during the famous 1965 march in Selma, Alabama at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. He overcame much in his life to become a towering figure of the Movement and served his country as a longtime US congressman. Sadly the legacy has come to an end with the death of this great African American leader who lost his battle with cancer on July 17, 2020, at the age of 80. Here at Harlem Roots, we wanted to take the time to honor this great man and the vital work that he has done for the Civil Right's Movement!
The Impact of One Life
"It is with inconsolable grief and enduring sadness that we announce the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis," his family said in a statement that was reported by CNN as they broke the news. "He was honored and respected as the conscience of the US Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother. He was a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being. He dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America. He will be deeply missed."
Lewis died on the same day as civil rights leader the Rev. Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian, who was 95. The two fought together for equal rights for blacks and minorities in this country for decades. The dual deaths of the civil rights icons came during a time of social unrest the likes this nation has not seen since the start of the Civil Rights Movement. As the country continues to grapple with racial upheaval in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests the passing of these two great men has given much cause for pause and reflection. These deaths are just another casualty in a year filled with them, as America struggles to deal with the deaths of nearly 140,000 Americans from Covid-19 and the pandemic that continues to rage out of control.
In the midst of the chaos and unrest, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the time to recognize the great contribution that Lewis has made in a statement to the press. "Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history: Congressman John Lewis, the Conscience of the Congress." Lewis broke the news of his diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer and his determination to fight the disease in late December 2019. At the time of his disclosure of his diagnosis, he made the statement that he had been in some kind of fight for most of his life, for freedom, liberty, and rights but that he has never faced a fight quite like the one that was looming before him as he battled cancer. Six months later, the nation was saying goodbye to the brave soul of John Robert Lewis.
A Lifetime of Freedom Fighting
Lewis, a Democrat who served as the US representative for Georgia's 5th Congressional District for more than three decades, was widely seen as a moral conscience of Congress. This was largely due to his relentless fight for human rights and his decades-long embodiment of nonviolent protests and calls for social and political reform. His passionate oratory was backed by a long record of action that included by his best count at least 40 arrests due to his speaking out, protesting, and demonstrating against racial and social injustice.
An avid follower and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis participated in a number of lunch counter sit-in protests, joined the Freedom Riders in their pursuit of desegregation, and at the age of 23 made history as one of the keynote speakers at the historic 1963 March on Washington. Lewis said on many occasions that King inspired him and was one of the driving forces that he drew on during his activism. Angered by the unfairness of the Jim Crow Laws in the South, he launched what he called "good trouble" with organized protests and sit-ins during the early 1960s. He was quoted several times saying that African Americans did not want their freedom gradually but that they wanted to be free in the here and now as it should be. That became the reeling call for blacks and those who stood with them against the segregation, abuse, discrimination, and unfair treatment.
The Ripple Effect of One Person's Impact
All it takes is one action, one voice, one person, and one thought to start a chain reaction. The ripples that spread out can have far-reaching impacts few could even imagine at the time. This is what the life of John Robert Lewis was like, and even after his death, the ripples of his life are still being felt by many all across the United States. About 150 people gathered in downtown Youngstown a few days after Lewis' death to remember civil rights leader and the work he did. The memorial was held in front of the Thomas Lambros Federal Courthouse. Church leaders, social leaders, community members, and local activists were among those who spoke. Many spoke of the impact Lewis' life had had on them while others urged people to continue living by the example he set and to carry on the good work that he started. “We need to walk away saying we’re going to pick up that baton and carrying on, and how are we going to do that? How are we going to do that? By not being a silent witness, by speaking out when we see an injustice,” said Penny Wells, of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past. The event ended with the singing of the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.”
Remembering A Legend
Many politicians and people of note took pause at hearing about Lewis' death and shared thoughts, memories, and condolences. President Donald Trump said that he was saddened to hear about the death of Lewis and ordered all flags to be flown at half-staff. Former President Barack Obama made a statement to the press where he said that Lewis had left his mark on the country and that he had been a vital influence on U.S. history. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also admired Lewis and shared their praise for his work and sent condolences to his family and his supporters. Condolences also came from the international community, with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Irish President Michael D. Higgins all memorializing Lewis on social media and in statements made to their respective local and national press groups.
One thing that must be remembered about the late representative John Lewis is that he was not always so universally admired and respected. While he came to be loved and expected later in life and is now being honored in his death, he was not always so well thought of, especially among those whom he came up against in the Civil Rights fight. When he spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, many Americans considered this man to be a militant and a troublemaker. He was widely seen at that time as someone who pushed too hard for what was widely seen at the time as radical change, and many saw him as someone who lacked the virtue of patience and was unwilling to simply let history work things out as time went on. March organizers oftentimes struggled with his zealousness and some even made him tone down his speech, removing his fiery zeal to peacefully fight Jim Crow Laws and other segregation practices in order to avoid the harshest of backlash from the political and societal powers at the time.
"Lewis’s long career of activism reminds us that fundamental change does not come without conflict — and that 'nonviolent' does not mean 'non-confrontational.' When Lewis traveled through South Carolina with an integrated busload of Freedom Riders or organized demonstrations in Alabama to demand voting rights, he was challenging authority and defying police. When a group he was leading was given an official order to halt or disperse, he ignored it and pressed on. He regularly violated Jim Crow laws and was arrested some 40 times. More than once, he was beaten within an inch of his life" (Washington Post). The legacy of this great man is not to be lost and forgotten but remembered and continued even in his death. Calls to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama after Lewis has only grown since his death and there are other proposals and movements rising up since his death as people seek to keep the fiery passion of John Robert Lewis alive.
What Will You Do Now?
It is up to each and every person who believes in equality and freedom for all, regardless of race or other defining classification, to keep up the fight that so many like Lewis have given their lives for. We cannot let their passion and progress fade. It is up to us to ask on a personal and societal level one important question: "What do I need to do to make a difference and make things better for everyone?"