By Gabby Robinson
John Lewis once said, “You cannot be afraid to speak up and speak out for what you believe. You have to have courage, raw courage.” Who was John Lewis, you ask? He was an African American politician who served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district and a prominent civil rights activist in the 1960s. He served in the House of Representatives from 1987 until his death in 2020 and was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee from 1963 to 1966. During these uncertain times, our country needs people who aren’t afraid to speak out and have courage like John Lewis. We can commemorate his work by remembering his life and legacy.
John Lewis was born in Alabama, on Feb. 21, 1940 to Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis. Lewis’ parents were sharecroppers in Pike Country, Alabama. As a young child, Lewis wanted to be a preacher and would preach to his family’s chickens. While he didn’t have many interactions with white people as a young child, he began to experience racism and segregation as he grew older. By the age of 11, Lewis was very aware of this existing segregation.
At the age of 15, Lewis gave his first public sermon and a few years later met Rosa Parks during her role in the Montgomery bus boycott. Then, at 18, he met Martin Luther King Jr. Lewis later graduated from the American Baptist college in Nashville, Tenn., becoming a baptist minister. He then went back to college to earn his Bachelor’s Degree in Religion and Philosophy at Fisk University.
Lewis became an activist in the civil rights movement during his time at Fisk University. He studied the way of nonviolent protests and became involved in sit-ins at segregated public places. He was arrested and imprisoned many times for his efforts.
In 1961, Lewis became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders that challenged segregation of Southern bus terminals, during which he was beaten and arrested. Two years later he was elected to replace Chuck McDew as the chairman of SNCC, and held the position until 1966. As a chairman, Lewis was one of the “Big Six“ leaders who organized the March on Washington and was a speaker during the event.
In 1964, he coordinated the SNCC’s efforts to register African American voters and launch the Mississippi Freedom Summer project. A year later, Lewis became a part of one of the most important events in the history of the civil rights movement: he and activist Hosa Williams led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. in support of voting rights. While crossing the bridge, the protesters were confronted by Alabama State Troopers and sheriff deputies who ordered them to disperse. Instead of leaving, the protesters began to pray and soon the police quickly discharged tear gas and attacked them with bullwhips and billy clubs. Over 50 protesters were hospitalized, including Lewis, whose skull was fractured. This day became known as “Bloody Sunday“.
After leaving the SNCC, Lewis moved to New York City and took a job as the associate director of the Field Foundation. A little over a year later, he moved to Atlanta, Georgia where he remained active in the civil rights movement and was made director of the Southern Regional Council’s Community Organization Project. In 1970, Lewis then became the director of the Voter Education Project (VEP) and held the position until 1977. After leaving the VEP, he ran for Councilman, but was defeated by Wyche Fowler and accepted a position with the Carter administration who put him in charge of ACTION, the umbrella federal volunteer agency, and the Volunteers in Service of America (VISTA).
In 1981, Lewis ran for a seat on the Atlanta City Council and won, serving on the council until 1986. He then began representing a district that included Atlanta in the US House of Representatives and was reelected 16 times. Lewis was one of the most liberal congressmen and was called the “conscience of Congress.” His approach to politics was informed by his involvement in the civil rights movement. While in recent years, Lewis has supported Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, he has also opposed many leaders, like Donald Trump and George Bush. He also recommended Biden pick a woman of color as his running mate.
In addition to many other honors Lewis received, he was awarded the MLK Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize in 1975, the Courage Award in 2001 and the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People Spingarn Medal in 2002. In 2011, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He wrote a few memoirs and a graphic novel series and won several awards, including the National Book Award and Coretta Scott King Book Award.
Sadly, in July 2020, Lewis died after a short battle of stage-four pancreatic cancer. He was the first African American lawmaker to lie in state in the rotunda of the US capitol and at his funeral, Lewis was eulogized by three former US presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. On the day of his funeral, The New York Times published an essay at Lewis’s request that favored the Black Lives Matter Movement. Lewis was not only a spectacular man, but a man who put justice over anything else. He accomplished many things and is an inspiration to millions. May he rest in peace after a long life fighting for what is right, and may our future generations continue to do good like Lewis. As he once said, “Never, ever, be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”