Rep. John Lewis would have been 81 years old today. Representative Lewis passed away July 17, 2020. Time Magazine said: His death represents the end of an era, not only for Congress but for the country as a whole. A survivor of Alabama’s “Bloody Sunday” massacre in 1965 and a protegé of Martin Luther King Jr. who would ultimately inspire Barack Obama to enter public office, Lewis was one of the last living leaders of the civil rights movement. A member of Congress for more than thirty years, he channeled all he had learned from his fight for equality as a young man into empowering youth and minority communities and encouraging activism.
“He was known as one of the most dedicated, principled, courageous civil rights activists of all,” Clayborne Carson, a historian and Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, told TIME. “There were a lot of people who I apply those adjectives to, but I think he exemplified them as well or better than anyone else.”
The details of “Bloody Sunday” are related here by the Encyclopedia Britannica website: On March 7, 1965, Lewis played a pivotal role in one the most important events in the history of the American civil rights movement when he and King lieutenant Hosea Williams led some 600 peaceful demonstrators on a march in support of voting rights that departed from Selma, with the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, as its destination. At the beginning of the march, while still in Selma, as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, the protestors were confronted by a large force of sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, and deputized “possemen” (some on horseback) who had been authorized by Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace to “take whatever means necessary” to prevent the march. Given two minutes to disperse, the marchers were almost immediately set upon. They were quickly doused with tear gas, overrun by horses, and attacked with bullwhips and billy clubs. As a result of the brutal assault, more than 50 marchers were hospitalized, including Lewis, whose skull was fractured but who spoke to television reporters before going to the hospital, and called on Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson to take action in Alabama. Millions of American television viewers witnessed the event, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and within 48 hours demonstrations in support of the marchers had taken place in some 80 American cities. The resulting heightened awareness would contribute mightily to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act , which was signed into law by Johnson on August 6, 1965.
Lewis continued working for justice and fairness, during his time as the director of the Voter Education Project. Pres. Jimmy Carter, put Lewis in charge of ACTION, the umbrella federal volunteer agency that included the Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). In 1981, Lewis became an Atlanta city councilman 5 years later he began to represent a district that included Atlanta in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In addition to numerous other honours he received, Lewis was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize in 1975, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2001, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Spingarn Medal in 2002. In 2011 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His memoirs are Walking with the Wind (1998; cowritten with Michael D’Orso) and the March trilogy (2013, 2015, and 2016; all cowritten with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell), a graphic novel series for young adults that was based on Lewis’s experiences in the civil rights movement. The final installment in the series received numerous honours, including the National Book Award (2016), and Lewis and Aydin shared a Coretta Scott King Book Award (2017). The documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020) chronicles his life and career.
In July 2020, after a battle with pancreatic cancer, Lewis died. Called the “conscience of Congress,” he became the first African American lawmaker to lie in state in the rotunda of the U.S. capitol. At his funeral at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (King’s home parish), Lewis was eulogized by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, pioneer of nonviolent resistance James Lawson, and three former U.S. presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Obama, for whom Lewis was an inspiration and a hero, called Lewis 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.”Share: