John Robert Lewis, the son of Eddie Lewis and and Willie Mae Carter Lewis, was born in Pike County, Alabama, on 21st February, 1940. After his parents bought their own farm - 110 acres for $300 - John, the third of 10 children, shared in the farm work, leaving school at harvest time to pick cotton, peanuts and corn. Their house had no plumbing or electricity. According to Katharine Q. Seelye: "John was responsible for taking care of the chickens. He fed them and read to them from the Bible. He baptized them when they were born and staged elaborate funerals when they died." (1)
Lewis later claimed 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. However, he was a dedicated student and dreamed of being the first person in his family to go to college. (2) Lewis eventually enrolled at the American Baptist Theological Seminary 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. (3)
While studying at Fisk he joined the civil rights movement, organising the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. He later recalled: "The Nashville sit-ins became the first mass arrest in the sit-in movement, and I was taken to jail... I'll tell you, I felt so liberated. I felt so free. I felt like I had crossed over. I think I said to myself, 'What else can you do to me? You beat me. You harassed me. Now you have placed me under arrest. You put us in jail. What's left? You can kill us?'" Lewis went on to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which became a prominent civil rights group, and served as its president for three years. (4)
Lewis attended training sessions held by James Lawson, a committed pacifist, on non-violence strategies. "Over the next year, Lawson's worshops deepened his young disciple's religious and moral faith with visions of 'redemptive suffering,' 'soul force,' and the 'beloved community,' concepts that would inform and animate Lewis's long and influential career as a civil rights leader." (5)
Transport segregation continued in some parts of the United States, so in 1961, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) began to organize Freedom Rides. These civil rights campaigners challenged this status quo by riding interstate buses in the South in mixed racial groups to challenge local laws or customs that enforced segregation in seating. John Lewis commented later: "At this time human dignity is the most important thing in my life. This is the most important decision in my life, to decide to give up all if necessary for the Freedom Ride, that Justice and Freedom might come to the Deep South." (6)
James Farmer, national director of CORE, and thirteen volunteers left Washington on 4th May, 1961, for Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. The group included John Lewis, James Peck, James Farmer, James Zwerg, Genevieve Hughes, William E. Harbour, Frances Bergman, Walter Bergman, Albert Bigelow, Benjamin Elton Cox, Jimmy McDonald, Mae Frances Moultrie and Ed Blankenheimand. Farmer later recalled: "We were told that the racists, the segregationists, would go to any extent to hold the line on segregation in interstate travel. So when we began the ride I think all of us were prepared for as much violence as could be thrown at us. We were prepared for the possibility of death." (7)
Governor John Malcolm Patterson of Alabama who had been swept to victory in 1958 on a stridently white supremacist platform. commented that: "The people of Alabama are so enraged that I cannot guarantee protection for this bunch of rabble-rousers." Patterson, who had been elected with the support of the Ku Klux Klan added that integration would come to Alabama only "over my dead body." (8) In his inaugural address Patterson declared: "I will oppose with every ounce of energy I possess and will use every power at my command to prevent any mixing of white and Negro races in the classrooms of this state." (9)
The Birmingham, Police Commissioner, Bull Connor, organized violence against the Freedom Riders with local KKK groups. Gary Thomas Rowe, an FBI informer, and member of the KKK, that the mob would have fifteen minutes to attack the Freedom Riders without any arrests being made. On 14th May, 1961, a mob of Klansmen, attacked the bus at Anniston, Alabama. Some, having just come from church, were dressed in their Sunday best. One man threw a bomb through a broken window. When the Freedom Riders left the bus they were attacked by baseball bats and iron bars. Genevieve Hughes said she would have been killed but an exploding fuel tank convinced the mob that the whole bus was about to explode and the white bomb retreated. Eventually they were rescued by local police but no attempt was made to identify or arrest those responsible for the assault. (10)
James Peck later explained: "When the Greyhound bus pulled into Anniston, it was immediately surrounded by an angry mob armed with iron bars. They set about the vehicle, denting the sides, breaking windows, and slashing tires. Finally, the police arrived and the bus managed to depart. But the mob pursued in cars. Within minutes, the pursuing mob was hitting the bus with iron bars. The rear window was broken and a bomb was hurled inside. All the passengers managed to escape before the bus burst into flames and was totally destroyed. Policemen, who had been standing by, belatedly came on the scene. A couple of them fired into the air. The mob dispersed and the injured were taken to a local hospital." (11)
Another serious attack on the Freedom Riders took place in Montgomery. Gary Thomas Rowe was a member of the KKK who attacked them: "We made an astounding sight... men running and walking down the streets of Birmingham on Sunday afternoon carrying chains, sticks, and clubs. Everything was deserted; no police officers were to be seen except one on a street corner. He steppe3d off and let us go by, and we barged into the bus station and took it over like an army of occupation. There were Klansmen in the waiting room, in the rest rooms, in the parking area." (12)
They adhered to Gandhian discipline and refused to fight back, but this only encouraged their attackers. John Lewis, James Peck, James Zwerg, and Walter Bergman, took severe beatings. Bergman, the oldest of the Freedom Riders at sixty-one, was knocked unconscious, and one of the attackers continued to stomp on his chest. Frances Bergman begged the Klansman to stop beating her husband, he ignored her plea. Fortunately, one of the other Klansmen - realizing that the defenceless Freedom Rider was about to be killed - eventually called a halt to the beating. (13)
John Lewis was left unconscious in a pool of his own blood outside the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Montgomery, He spent countless days and nights in county jails. In several cities, police either looked the other way while crowds beat the riders or arrested the so-called outside agitators. When the Core leader James Farmer moved to discontinue the rides because of the violence, Lewis and his 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. "But the Freedom Rides drew national attention to the desegregation campaign and attracted recruits. And the Kennedy administration began formal implementation of the Supreme Court decision." (14)
Lewis was elected chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963. That year, leaders of the civil rights movement decided to organize what became known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to take place on 28th August, 1963. Bayard Rustin was given overall control of the march. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, had been keeping a file on Rustin for many years. An FBI undercover agent managed to take a photograph of Rustin talking to King while he was having a bath. This photograph was then used to support false stories being circulated that Rustin was having a homosexual relationship with King. When surveillance established only that King was having sex with women other than his wife, FBI aides worked to "neutralise" him by slipping prurient information to the press. (15)
The FBI passed on information about Rustin to white politicians in the Deep South who feared that a successful march on Washington would persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to sponsor a proposed new civil rights act. Storm Thurmond led the campaign against Rustin making several speeches where he described him as a "communist, draft dodger and homosexual" and had his entire arrest file entered in the record. (16)
A Justice Department lawyer of the time later commented: “Everything you have read about the FBI, how it was determined to destroy the movement, is true.” Accounts indicating that “the Bureau and its Director were openly racist,” and that “the Bureau set out to destroy black leaders simply because they were black leaders.” (17) The historian David Garrow, has argued "The Bureau was strongly conservative, peopled with many right-wingers, and thus it selected people and organizations on the left end of the political spectrum for special and unpleasant attention." (18)
Rustin managed to persuade the leaders of all the various civil rights groups to participate in the planned protest meeting at the Lincoln Memorial. This included Lewis, Martin Luther King (SCLC), Philip Randolph (Socialist Party), Roy Wilkins (NAACP), Floyd McKissick (CORE), James Farmer (Congress on Racial Equality), Witney Young (National Urban League) and Walter Reuther (AFL-CIO).
Most newspapers condemned the idea of a mass march on Washington. An editorial in the New York Herald Tribune warned that: If Negro leaders persist in their announced plans to march 100,000-strong on the capital…they will be jeopardizing their cause…. The ugly part of this particular mass protest is its implication of uncontained violence if Congress doesn’t deliver. This is the kind of threat that can make men of pride, which most Congressmen are, turn stubborn." (19)
Rustin hoped that 100,000 marchers would participate. "We wanted to get everybody, from the whole country, into Washington by nine o'clock in the morning and out of Washington by sundown. This required all kinds of things that you had to think through. You had to think how many toilets you needed, where they should be. Where is your line of march? We had to consult doctors on exactly what people should bring to eat so that they wouldn't get sick... We had to arrange for drinking water. We had to arrange what we would do if there was a terrible thunderstorm that day." In fact, over a quarter of a million people, as many as 60,000 of them white. (20)
At the Washington Monument staging area, a public address system came alive shortly after ten o'clock with the voice of Joan Baez, who entertained the early crowd by singing Oh Freedom. She was followed by Odetta singing I'm On My Way, and during her performance she was joined by Josh White, who had only recently returned to America from Europe after being blacklisted after appearing before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Peter, Paul and Mary performed Blowin in the Wind and Bob Dylan sung Only A Pawn In Their Game, about the death of Medgar Evers. Other celebrities who attended included Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll and James Garner. The veteran politician, Norman Thomas, the 79 year-old former leader of the Socialist Party of America said: "I'm glad I lived long enough to see this day." (21)
In his speech John Lewis said: "We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages, at all. In good conscience, we cannot support the administration's civil rights bill, for it is too little, and too late. There's not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality. This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, for engaging in peaceful demonstrations. The voting section of this bill will not help thousands of black citizens who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama, and Georgia, who are qualified to vote, but lack a 6th Grade education. 'One man, one vote,' is the African cry. It is ours, too."
Lewis went on to argue that politicians in the two major parties were deeply divided over the subject of civil rights. Whereas they had the support of John F. Kennedy and Jacob Javits but was strongly opposed by Barry Goldwater and James Eastland: "We are now involved in revolution. This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromise and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation. What political leader here can stand up and say, 'My party is the party of principles'? The party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party? We won't stop now. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond won't stop this revolution. The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own "scorched earth" policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground - nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy." (22)
Martin Luther King was the final speaker and made his famous I Have a Dream speech. "I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification," one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."
King ended his speech with the words: "This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of Gods children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" (23)
In the 1960 Presidential Election campaign John F. Kennedy argued for a new Civil Rights Act. After the election it was discovered that over 70 per cent of the African American vote went to Kennedy. However, during the first two years of his presidency, Kennedy failed to put forward his promised legislation. The Civil Rights bill was brought before Congress in 1963 and in a speech on television, Kennedy pointed out that: "The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day; one third as much chance of completing college; one third as much chance of becoming a professional man; twice as much chance of becoming unemployed; about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year; a life expectancy which is seven years shorter; and the prospects of earning only half as much." (24)
Kennedy's Civil Rights bill was still being debated by Congress when he was assassinated in November, 1963. The new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had a poor record on civil rights issues, took up the cause. His main opponent was his long-time friend and mentor, Richard B. Russell, who told the Senate: "I am proud to have been a member of that small group of determined senators that since the 9th of March has given... the last iota of physical strength in the effort to hold back the overwhelming combination of forces supporting this bill until its manifold evils could be laid bare before the people of the country. The depth of our conviction is evidenced by the intensity of our opposition. There is little room for honorable men to compromise where the inalienable rights of future generations are at stake... We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states." (25)
Russell organized 18 Southern Democratic senators in filibustering this bill. However, on the 15th June, 1964, Russell privately told Mike Mansfield and Hubert Humphrey, the two leading supporters of the Civil Rights Act, that he would bring an end to the filibuster that was blocking the vote on the bill. This resulted in a vote being taken and it was passed by 73 votes to 27.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act made racial discrimination in public places, such as theaters, restaurants and hotels, illegal. It also required employers to provide equal employment opportunities. Projects involving federal funds could now be cut off if there was evidence of discriminated based on colour, race or national origin. The Civil Rights Act also attempted to deal with the problem of African Americans being denied the vote in the Deep South. The legislation stated that uniform standards must prevail for establishing the right to vote. Schooling to sixth grade constituted legal proof of literacy and the attorney general was given power to initiate legal action in any area where he found a pattern of resistance to the law. (26)
In 1965 President Lyndon Baines Johnson attempted to persuade Congress to pass his Voting Rights Act. This proposed legislation removed the right of states to impose restrictions on who could vote in elections. Members of Congress was reluctant to pass this legislation. To help persuade them on 7th March, 1965, Lewis was in the vanguard of 600 people demanding the voting rights they had been denied,and attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where they were confronted by a waiting phalanx of state troopers in riot gear. "Ordered to disperse, the protesters silently stood their ground. The troopers responded with tear gas and bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. In the melee, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, a trooper cracked Mr. Lewis’s skull with a billy club, knocking him to the ground, then hit him again when he tried to get up." (27)
Televised images of the beatings of Lewis and scores of others outraged the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act. Lewis later wrote: "The American public had already seen so much of this sort of thing, countless images of beatings and dogs and cursing and hoses. But something about that day in Selma touched a nerve deeper than anything that had come before." (28)
A few days later President Johnson went on television and argued: "Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this rights. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists and he manages to present himself to register, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on his application. And if he manages to fill out an application he is given a test. The register is the sole judge of whether he passes his test. He may be asked to recite the entire constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of state laws. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write. For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin. This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections - federal, State, and local - which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote." (29)
Although opposed by politicians from the Deep South, the Voting Rights Act was passed by large majorities in the House of Representatives (333 to 48) and the Senate (77 to 19). The legislation empowered the national government to register those whom the states refused to put on the voting list. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed into law on 6th August. A milestone in the struggle for civil rights, the law struck down the literacy tests that Black people had been compelled to take before they could register to vote and replaced segregationist voting registrars with federal registrars to ensure that Black people were no longer denied the ballot. (30)
At a speech at Howard University, President Johnson explained the importance of this act: "This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: 'All men are created equal' - 'Government by consent of the governed' - 'Give me liberty or give me death'. And those are not just clever words and not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries. Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it. Wednesday I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote. This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections - federal, state, and local - which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote." (31)
Lewis became chairman of the Voter Education Project, aimed at registering minority voters. In 1977 he failed to win the congressional seat in Atlanta vacated by Andrew Young. President Jimmy Carter responded by appointing him as his ambassador to the United Nations. He was elected to the Atlanta city council in 1981, and in 1986, he challenged Julian Bond to become the Democratic Party candidate in the House of Representatives. 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. (32)
In 2009, Lewis was reunited with Elwin Wilson, a former Klansman, who took part in the attacks on the Freedom Riders. Wilson, said that the election of President Barack Obama had spurred him to admitting his hateful acts and to ask for forgiveness from Lewis. "I said if just one person comes forward and gets the hate out of their heart, it's all worth it. I never dreamed that a man that I had assaulted, that he would ever be a congressman and that I'd ever see him again." Lewis replied: "He was very, very sincere, and I think it takes a lot of raw courage to be willing to come forward the way he did. I think it will lead to a great deal of healing." (33) He added: “It’s in keeping with the philosophy of nonviolence. That’s what the movement was always about, to have the capacity to forgive and move toward reconciliation.” (34)
John Lewis was considered one of Congress’s most liberal Democrats and remained fiercely independent. He voted against the Iraq War, boycotted the inauguration of George W Bush, whose election he considered illegitimate due to voter fraud in Florida. He 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. Lewis also refused to attend the inauguration of President Donald Trump because of evidence that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election on his behalf. (35)
When the House of Representaives voted in December 2019 to impeach President Trump, Lewis commented. “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.” (36)
John Lewis announced on in December, 2019 that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and vowed to fight it with the same passion with which he had battled racial injustice. "I have been in some kind of fight - for freedom, equality, basic human rights - for nearly my entire life." (37) He made his last public appearance in June, as protests for racial justice swept the US and the world following the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota, after a white officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. (38)
John Lewis died on 17 July, 2020.
We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages, at all.
In good conscience, we cannot support the administration's civil rights bill, for it is too little, and too late. There's not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.
This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, for engaging in peaceful demonstrations.
The voting section of this bill will not help thousands of black citizens who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama, and Georgia, who are qualified to vote, but lack a 6th Grade education. "One man, one vote," is the African cry. It is ours, too.
We are now involved in revolution. This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromise and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation. What political leader here can stand up and say, "My party is the party of principles"? The party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party?
We won't stop now. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond won't stop this revolution. The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own "scorched earth" policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground - nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy. We will make the action of the past few months look petty. And I say to you, WAKE UP AMERICA!
Representative John Lewis, a son of sharecroppers and an apostle of nonviolence who was bloodied at Selma and across the Jim Crow South in the historic struggle for racial equality, and who then carried a mantle of moral authority into Congress, died on Friday. He was 80...
Mr. Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, announced on Dec. 29 that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and vowed to fight it with the same passion with which he had battled racial injustice. “I have been in some kind of fight - for freedom, equality, basic human rights - for nearly my entire life,” he said....
More than a half-century later, after the killing in May of George Floyd, a Black man in police custody in Minneapolis, Mr. Lewis welcomed the resulting global demonstrations against police killings of Black people and, more broadly, against systemic racism in many corners of society. He saw those protests as a continuation of his life’s work, though his illness had left him to watch from the sidelines.
“It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets — to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble,’” Mr. Lewis told “CBS This Morning” in June.
“This feels and looks so different,” he said of the Black Lives Matter movement, which drove the anti-racism demonstrations. “It is so much more massive and all inclusive.” He added, “There will be no turning back.”
He died on the same day as did another civil rights stalwart, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a close associate of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Mr. Lewis’s personal history paralleled that of the civil rights movement. He was among the original 13 Freedom Riders, the Black and white activists who challenged segregated interstate travel in the South in 1961. He was a founder and early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which coordinated lunch-counter sit-ins. He helped organize the March on Washington, where Dr. King was the main speaker, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Mr. Lewis led demonstrations against racially segregated restrooms, hotels, restaurants, public parks and swimming pools, and he rose up against other indignities of second-class citizenship. At nearly every turn he was beaten, spat upon or burned with cigarettes. He was tormented by white mobs and absorbed body blows from law enforcement.
On March 7, 1965, he led one of the most famous marches in American history. In the vanguard of 600 people demanding the voting rights they had been denied, Mr. Lewis marched partway across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., into a waiting phalanx of state troopers in riot gear.
Ordered to disperse, the protesters silently stood their ground. The troopers responded with tear gas and bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. In the melee, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, a trooper cracked Mr. Lewis’s skull with a billy club, knocking him to the ground, then hit him again when he tried to get up.
Televised images of the beatings of Mr. Lewis and scores of others outraged the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson presented to a joint session of Congress eight days later and signed into law on Aug. 6. A milestone in the struggle for civil rights, the law struck down the literacy tests that Black people had been compelled to take before they could register to vote and replaced segregationist voting registrars with federal registrars to ensure that Black people were no longer denied the ballot.
Once registered, millions of African-Americans began transforming politics across the South. They gave Jimmy Carter, a son of Georgia, his margin of victory in the 1976 presidential election. (A popular poster proclaimed, “Hands that once picked cotton now can pick a president.”) And their voting power opened the door for Black people, including Mr. Lewis, to run for public office. Elected in 1986, he became the second African-American to be sent to Congress from Georgia since Reconstruction, representing a district that encompassed much of Atlanta.
While Mr. Lewis represented Atlanta, his natural constituency was disadvantaged people everywhere. Known less for sponsoring major legislation than for his relentless pursuit of justice, he was called “the conscience of the Congress” by his colleagues.
When the House voted in December 2019 to impeach President Trump, Mr. Lewis’s words rose above the rest. “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something,” he said on the House floor. “To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”
His words resonated as well after he saw the video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as Mr. Floyd gasped for air.
“It was so painful, it made me cry,” Mr. Lewis told “CBS This Morning.” “People now understand what the struggle was all about,” he said. “It’s another step down a very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.”
When he was younger, his words could be more militant. History remembers the March on Washington for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but Mr. Lewis startled and energized the crowd with his own passion.
“By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers,” he told the cheering throng that August day, “we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: ‘Wake up, America. Wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.”
His original text was more blunt. “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did,” he had written. President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill was “too little, too late,” he had written, demanding, “Which side is the federal government on?”
But Dr. King and other elders — Mr. Lewis was just 23 — worried that those first-draft passages would offend the Kennedy administration, which they felt they could not alienate in their drive for federal action on civil rights. They told him to tone down the speech.
Still, the crowd, estimated at more than 200,000, roared with approval at his every utterance.
An earnest man who lacked the silver tongue of other civil rights orators, Mr. Lewis could be pugnacious, tenacious and single-minded, and he led with a force that commanded attention.
He gained a reputation for having an almost mystical faith in his own survivability. One civil rights activist who knew him well told The New York Times in 1976: “Some leaders, even the toughest, would occasionally finesse a situation where they knew they were going to get beaten or jailed. John never did that. He always went full force into the fray.”
Mr. Lewis was arrested 40 times from 1960 to 1966. He was repeatedly beaten senseless by Southern policemen and freelance hoodlums. During the Freedom Rides in 1961, he was left unconscious in a pool of his own blood outside the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Montgomery, Ala., after he and others were attacked by hundreds of white people. He spent countless days and nights in county jails and 31 days in Mississippi’s notoriously brutal Parchman Penitentiary.
Once he was in Congress, Mr. Lewis voted with the most liberal Democrats, though he also showed an independent streak. In his quest to build what Dr. King called “the beloved community” — a world without poverty, racism or war (Mr. Lewis adopted the phrase) — he routinely voted against military spending. He opposed the Persian Gulf war of 1991 and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed in 1992. He refused to take part in the “Million Man March” in Washington in 1995, saying that statements made by the organizer, Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, were “divisive and bigoted.”
In 2001, Mr. Lewis skipped the inauguration of George W. Bush, saying he thought that Mr. Bush, who had become president after the Supreme Court halted a vote recount in Florida, had not been truly elected.
In 2017 he boycotted Mr. Trump’s inauguration, questioning the legitimacy of his presidency because of evidence that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election on Mr. Trump’s behalf.
That earned him a derisive Twitter post from the president: “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”
Mr. Trump’s attack marked a sharp detour from the respect that had been accorded Mr. Lewis by previous presidents, including, most recently, Barack Obama. Mr. Obama awarded Mr. Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2011.
In bestowing the honor in a White House ceremony, Mr. Obama said: “Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind — an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”
John Robert Lewis grew up with all the humiliations imposed by segregated rural Alabama. He was born on Feb. 21, 1940, to Eddie and Willie Mae (Carter) Lewis near the town of Troy on a sharecropping farm owned by a white man. After his parents bought their own farm — 110 acres for $300 — John, the third of 10 children, shared in the farm work, leaving school at harvest time to pick cotton, peanuts and corn. Their house had no plumbing or electricity. In the outhouse, they used the pages of an old Sears catalog as toilet paper.
John was responsible for taking care of the chickens. He fed them and read to them from the Bible. He baptized them when they were born and staged elaborate funerals when they died.
“I was truly intent on saving the little birds’ souls,” he wrote in his memoir, “Walking With the Wind” (1998). “I could imagine that they were my congregation. And me, I was a preacher.”
His family called him “Preacher,” and becoming one seemed to be his destiny. He drew inspiration by listening to a young minister named Martin Luther King on the radio and reading about the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott. He finally wrote a letter to Dr. King, who sent him a round-trip bus ticket to visit him in Montgomery, in 1958.
By then, Mr. Lewis had begun his studies at American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College) in Nashville, where he worked as a dishwasher and janitor to pay for his education.
In Nashville, Mr. Lewis met many of the civil rights activists who would stage the lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom Rides and voter registration campaigns. They included the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., who was one of the nation’s most prominent scholars of civil disobedience and who led workshops on Gandhi and nonviolence. He mentored a generation of civil rights organizers, including Mr. Lewis.
Mr. Lewis’s first arrest came in February 1960, when he and other students demanded service at whites-only lunch counters in Nashville. It was the first prolonged battle of the movement that evolved into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
David Halberstam, then a reporter for The Nashville Tennessean, later described the scene: “The protests had been conducted with exceptional dignity, and gradually one image had come to prevail — that of elegant, courteous young Black people, holding to their Gandhian principles, seeking the most elemental of rights, while being assaulted by young white hoodlums who beat them up and on occasion extinguished cigarettes on their bodies.”
In three months, after repeated well-publicized sit-ins, the city’s political and business communities gave in to the pressure, and Nashville became the first major Southern city to begin desegregating public facilities.
But Mr. Lewis lost his family’s good will. When his parents learned that he had been arrested in Nashville, he wrote, they were ashamed. They had taught him as a child to accept the world as he found it. When he asked them about signs saying “Colored Only,” they told him, “That’s the way it is, don’t get in trouble.”
But as an adult, he said, after he met Dr. King and Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man was a flash point for the civil rights movement, he was inspired to “get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Getting into “good trouble” became his motto for life. A documentary film, “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” was released this month.
Despite the disgrace he had brought on his family, he felt that he had been “involved in a holy crusade” and that getting arrested had been “a badge of honor,” he said in a 1979 oral history interview housed at Washington University in St. Louis.
In 1961, when he graduated from the seminary, he joined a Freedom Ride organized by the Congress of Racial Equality, known as CORE. He and others were beaten bloody when they tried to enter a whites-only waiting room at the bus station in Rock Hill, S.C. Later, he was jailed in Birmingham, Ala., and beaten again in Montgomery, where several others were badly injured and one was paralyzed for life.
“If there was anything I learned on that long, bloody bus trip of 1961,” he wrote in his memoir, “it was this — that we were in for a long, bloody fight here in the American South. And I intended to stay in the middle of it.”
At the same time, a schism in the movement was opening between those who wanted to express their rage and fight back and those who believed in pressing on with nonviolence. Mr. Lewis chose nonviolence.
But by the time of the urban race riots of the 1960s, particularly in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965, many Black people had rejected nonviolence in favor of direct confrontation. Mr. Lewis was ousted as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1966 and replaced by the fiery Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the phrase “Black power.”
Mr. Lewis spent a few years out of the limelight. He headed the Voter Education Project, registering voters, and finished his bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy at Fisk University in Nashville in 1967.
During this period he met Lillian Miles, a librarian, teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer. She was outgoing and political and could quote Dr. King’s speeches verbatim. They were married in 1968, and she became one of his closest political advisers.
She died in 2012. Mr. Lewis’s survivors include several siblings and his son, John-Miles Lewis.
Mr. Lewis made his first attempt at running for office in 1977, an unsuccessful bid for Congress. He won a seat on the Atlanta City Council in 1981, and in 1986 he ran again for the House. It was a bitter race that pitted against each other two civil rights figures, Mr. Lewis and Julian Bond, a friend and former close associate of his in the movement. The charismatic Mr. Bond, more articulate and polished than Mr. Lewis, was the perceived favorite.
“I want you to think about sending a workhorse to Washington, and not a show horse,” Mr. Lewis said during a debate. “I want you to think about sending a tugboat and not a showboat.”
Mr. Lewis won in an upset, with 52 percent of the vote. His support came from Atlanta’s white precincts and from working-class and poor Black voters who felt more comfortable with him than with Mr. Bond, though Mr. Bond won the majority of Black voters.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Lewis’s long congressional career was marked by protests. He was arrested in Washington several times, including outside the South African Embassy for demonstrating against apartheid and at Sudan’s Embassy while protesting genocide in Darfur.
In 2010 he supported Mr. Obama’s health care bill, a divisive measure that drew angry protesters, including many from the right-wing Tea Party, to the Capitol. Some demonstrators shouted obscenities and racial slurs at Mr. Lewis and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“They were shouting, sort of harassing,” Mr. Lewis told reporters at the time. “But it’s OK. I’ve faced this before.”
In 2016, after a massacre at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub left 49 people dead, he led a sit-in on the House floor to protest federal inaction on gun control. The demonstration drew the support of 170 lawmakers, but Republicans dismissed it as a publicity stunt and squelched any legislative action.
Through it all, the events of Bloody Sunday were never far from his mind, and every year Mr. Lewis traveled to Selma to commemorate its anniversary. Over time, he watched attitudes change. At the ceremony in 1998, Joseph T. Smitherman, who had been Selma’s segregationist mayor in 1965 and was still mayor — though a repentant one — gave Mr. Lewis a key to the city.
“Back then, I called him an outside rabble-rouser,” Mr. Smitherman said of Mr. Lewis. “Today, I call him one of the most courageous people I ever met.”
Mr. Lewis was a popular speaker at college commencements and always offered the same advice — that the graduates get into “good trouble,” as he had done against his parents’ wishes.
He put it this way on Twitter in 2018:
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
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 leader 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....
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 Lewis forged his legacy as a lifetime champion for civil rights and racial equality during the struggles of the 1960s as he preached a message of non-violence alongside Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
It was in March 1965 that Lewis, aged only 25, stood with King and other civil rights leaders as they led peaceful protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Their planned march would take them to Montgomery, the state capitol, to demand equal voting rights.
As they crossed the bridge, armed Alabama police officers on horseback carrying tear gas, whips and bully clubs attacked them. At least 40 protesters required treatment, and Lewis suffered a fractured skull.
Media outlets from across America captured the brutal attack on film, calling it Bloody Sunday. The event became a pivotal moment in the battle for civil rights for African-Americans, as Americans outside the South could now see the abuse inflicted upon the black community under "Jim Crow" segregation laws.
Five months later, with Lewis among the collection of civil rights leaders at the White House, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.
Lewis was born on 21 February, 1940, during the time of Jim Crow laws, to a family of sharecroppers in the small Southern town of Troy, Alabama.
He was one of 10 children, and from an early age he expressed an obvious love of learning. Lewis would spend hours upon hours at his local library, and it was here where he could find African-American publications that would embolden his commitment to the struggle for civil rights.
"I loved going to the library," said Lewis. "It was the first time I ever saw black newspapers and magazines like JET, Ebony, the Baltimore Afro-American, or the Chicago Defender. And I'll never forget my librarian."
As a young black man growing up in the American South, the battle for racial equality actively shaped his life long before he became an activist. In 1954, when Lewis was only 13, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled in favour of Brown vs Board of Education, striking down more than 50 years of legalised racial segregation.
Alabama, along with many other states, fought the decision and delayed implementation of school desegregation. Lewis' school remained segregated despite Brown, and Alabama's commitment to segregation forced him to leave the state to attend college.
Lewis aspired to attend the nearby, all-white Troy State University and study for the ministry, but the school's segregationist stance meant it would never accept him.
In 1957, Lewis finally decided on attending the predominantly African-American institution, the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, because it allowed students to work for the school in lieu of tuition. Yet during his first year in Nashville, as the fight against segregation continued, Lewis attempted to transfer to Troy State.
He sent in an application, but never heard back from the school. It was common during this time for segregationist schools to ignore the applications of African-Americans instead of formally accepting or denying them.
After growing frustrated by Troy State's lack of response, Lewis wrote a letter to King describing his dilemma. King responded by sending Lewis a round-trip bus ticket to Montgomery so they could meet.
This meeting would commence Lewis' relationship with King and his lifelong leadership in the struggle for civil rights.
Lewis eventually decided to end his dream of entering Troy State University after consulting King. Lewis' parents had also feared their son would be killed, and their land taken away, if he continued to challenge Jim Crow laws. Instead, Lewis returned to Nashville, graduated from the seminary, and went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in religion and philosophy.
Throughout college, Lewis remained an important figure in the civil rights movement, organising sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. In 1961 he became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, seeking to end the practice of segregation on public transport.
At the time, several southern states had laws prohibiting African-Americans and white riders from sitting next to each other on public transportation or in bus terminals. The original 13 - seven white and six black - attempted to ride from Washington to New Orleans. In Virginia and North Carolina, the Freedom Riders evaded conflict, but all of that changed as they moved further south.
In May 1961, Lewis was attacked by a mob of white men at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, for attempting to enter a waiting room marked "Whites". Lewis was beaten and bloodied on that day, but his commitment remained undeterred.
In the Deep South, Lewis and other Freedom Riders were beaten by angry mobs, arrested, and jailed for sitting or standing next to white people on buses and in bus terminals. Some of the original riders left due to the violence and terror, but Lewis continued all the way to New Orleans.
In 2009, Lewis was reunited with his Rock Hill attacker, only this time instead of a clenched fist he was shown an open hand and a request for forgiveness. Elwin Wilson, a former Klansman who attacked Lewis, said that the election of President Barack Obama had spurred him to admitting his hateful acts and to ask for forgiveness from Lewis.
"I said if just one person comes forward and gets the hate out of their heart, it's all worth it," said Wilson. "I never dreamed that a man that I had assaulted, that he would ever be a congressman and that I'd ever see him again.
"He was very, very sincere, and I think it takes a lot of raw courage to be willing to come forward the way he did," said Lewis. "I think it will lead to a great deal of healing."
In 1963, when aged only 23, Lewis became the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), making him one of the "Big Six" civil rights leaders of the era. These leaders would organise the 1963 March on Washington, where King would give his historic "I Have A Dream" speech. Lewis, at an age when most people had just begun their professional careers, also stood atop the Lincoln Memorial and gave a rousing oration about the importance of fighting for civil rights.
"We are tired," Lewis said in his speech. "We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, 'Be patient'. How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now."
In March 1965, Lewis, King and other civil rights leaders organised the march from Selma to Montgomery that became a tipping point in the battle for civil rights and the eventual passage of the 1965 Voting Rights amendment.
Throughout his early civil rights career, King remained Lewis' mentor, the man Lewis said "was like a big brother to me".
"[He] inspired me to get in trouble - what I call good trouble, necessary trouble," Lewis later told the Washington Post. "And I've been getting in trouble ever since."
Lewis was in Indianapolis in April 1968, campaigning with Democratic presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy, when Kennedy announced that King had been assassinated.
"It was such an unbelievable feeling," Lewis said. "I cried. I just felt like something had died in all of us when we heard that Dr Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated. But I said to myself, well, we still have Bobby. And a short time later, he was gone."
After leaving the SNCC in 1966, Lewis remained active in civil rights in Atlanta, working on voter registration programmes and on helping people rise out of poverty.
When Jimmy Carter won the successful presidential bid, Lewis took a position with the federal domestic volunteer agency and in 1981, after Carter lost the White House to Republican Ronald Reagan, Lewis returned to Atlanta and was elected to the City Council.
Five years later he ran successfully for Georgia's fifth congressional district, and held his seat until his passing.
To help acquaint a new generation of Americans with the fight for civil rights in the 1960s, Lewis co-created the three-part graphic novel March, a vivid memoir of his lifetime of civil rights advocacy that went on to be a bestseller and award-winner.
As a young activist, Lewis had himself been inspired by the 1958 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. Through his own graphic novel, he hoped to inspire another generation of civil rights leaders.
"We are involved now in a serious revolution," it says in March: Book Two, published in 2015. "This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation.
"What political leader here can stand up and say, 'My party is the party of principles?'"
In 2014, the film Selma depicted the events of Lewis' historic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and was released to wide acclaim. It further cemented Lewis' legacy as a civil rights icon.
He recreated the journey across the bridge in March 2015, but this time with Barack Obama, America's first black president.
"It is a rare honour in this life to follow one of your heroes, and John Lewis is one of my heroes," Obama said at the 50th anniversary celebration.
During Donald Trump's presidency, Lewis fiercely opposed the policies and statements made by the president and his fellow Republicans. Lewis boycotted Trump's inauguration, saying he did not believe he was a "legitimate president" because of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
He went on to repeat concerns about the direction he felt the US was taking in 2017, after the white supremacist rally and attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"I am very troubled," he said. "I cannot believe in my heart what I am witnessing today in America. I wanted to think not only as an elected official, but as a human being that we had made more progress. It troubles me a great deal."
Despite this Lewis remained an undeterred and committed champion for the fight for civil rights and racial equality until his last breath.
"When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something" - John Lewis.
John R Lewis, a civil rights leader who preached non-violence while enduring beatings and jailings during seminal front-line confrontations of the 1960s, and later spent more than three decades in Congress defending the crucial gains he had helped achieve for people of colour, has died. He was 80.
His death was announced in a statement from house speaker Nancy Pelosi. No other details were immediately available. Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, announced his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer on 29 December and said he planned to continue working amid treatment. “I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life,” he said in a statement. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”
While Lewis was not a policy maven as a lawmaker, he served the role of conscience of the Democratic caucus on many matters. His reputation as keeper of the 1960s flame defined his career in Congress.
When George H W Bush vetoed a bill easing requirements to bring employment discrimination suits in 1990, Lewis rallied support for its revival. It became law as the Civil Rights Act of 1991. It took a dozen years, but in 2003 he won authorisation for construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall.
In 2012, when then Georgia representative Paul Broun proposed eliminating funding for one aspect of the Voting Rights Act, Lewis denounced the move as “shameful”. The amendment died.
Lewis’s final years in the house were marked by personal conflict with Donald Trump. Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Lewis said, rendered Mr Trump’s victory “illegitimate”. He boycotted Mr Trump’s inauguration. Later, during the house’s formal debate on whether to proceed with the impeachment process, Lewis had evinced no doubts: “For some, this vote might be hard,” he said on the house floor in December 2019. “But we have a mandate and a mission to be on the right side of history.”
Born to impoverished Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis was a high school student in 1955 when he heard broadcasts by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr that drew him to activism.
“Every minister I’d ever heard talked about ‘over yonder’, where we’d put on white robes and golden slippers and sit with the angels,” he recalled in his 1998 memoir Walking With the Wind. “But this man was talking about dealing with the problems people were facing in their lives right now, specifically black lives in the south.”
Lewis vaulted from obscurity in 1963 to head the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he helped form three years earlier. SNCC, pronounced “snick”, had quickly become a kind of advance guard of the movement, helping organise sit-ins and demonstrations throughout the south.
Within weeks of taking over SNCC, Lewis was in the Oval Office with five nationally known black leaders, including King, Whitney Young, A Philip Randolph, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins.
Labelled the “Big Six” by the press, they rejected John F Kennedy’s request to cancel the March on Washington planned for that August that promised to lure hundreds of thousands of protesters to the doorstep of the White House to push for strong civil rights legislation. The president argued that the march would inflame tensions with powerful southern politicians and set back the cause of civil rights.
From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his aspirational “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis, at 23, the youngest speaker, gave a prescient warning: “If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We must say, ‘Wake up, America, wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not be patient.”
The toughest of the major addresses, Lewis’s text had in fact been toned down earlier that day at the behest of his seniors – including King, his mentor. They feared that explicit condemnation of the Kennedy administration’s timidity and the threat of a “scorched earth” approach would create a political backlash. (With the death of Lewis, all of the speakers from the March are now deceased.)
The contrast with his elders symbolised Lewis’s unusual role in those tumultuous years. At critical moments, he rebuffed their advice to give legislation or litigation more time. Handcuffs and truncheons never dulled his belief in confrontation. Yet he stoutly opposed the militant black nationalists such as Stokely Carmichael who would later take over SNCC.
As the last survivor of the Big Six, Lewis was the one who kept striving for black-white amity. Time magazine included him in a 1975 list of “living saints” headed by Mother Teresa. With only mild hyperbole, the New Republic in 1996 called him “the last integrationist”.
Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the civil rights movement who had known Lewis since the mid-1960s, said in an interview: “His most distinguishing mark was steadfastness. He showed lifelong fidelity to the idea of one man, one vote – democracy as the defining purpose of the United States.
“John Lewis saw racism as a stubborn gate in freedom’s way, but if you take seriously the democratic purpose, whites, as well as blacks, benefit,” Mr Branch added. “And he became a rather lonely guardian of nonviolence.”
On inauguration day in 2009, the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, gave Lewis a photo with the inscription: “Because of you, John.” It joined a memorabilia collection that included the pen Lyndon B Johnson handed him after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Ironically, Lewis had backed the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, in the nominating contest’s early days because of a personal bond with both Clintons. But he switched allegiance once Mr Obama gained some traction.
Passage of the Voting Rights Act, which provided incisors for the 15th amendment 95 years after its enactment, is the Lewis saga’s richest chapter, what he called “the highlight of my involvement in the movement”.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act was beneficial in terms of public accommodations and employment, but its voting provision was ineffective.
Civil rights workers were attacked frequently, occasionally fatally. The torching and dynamiting of black churches was rising. Perpetrators, though often known, went unpunished. Local registrars continued to bar black people. Only if black citizens could vote in large numbers, civil rights leaders believed, would deep-south officials enforce laws.
But Johnson told King in December 1964 that Congress, dominated by old-line Southern lawmakers, would reject new legislation.
Both SNCC and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) decided to step up organising in Selma, Alabama. Black residents there constituted half the population, but only 1 per cent could vote.
Weeks of demonstrations produced only confrontations with police. During one set-to, an officer shot an unarmed local resident. In the aftermath, an SCLC staffer proposed a large protest march, from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery.
King was in Atlanta, where his senior advisers persuaded him to stay. The SNCC executive committee, increasingly resentful of SCLC’s dominance, voted to avoid the event. But SNCC chair Lewis would not allow himself to abstain. That decision, he said later, “would change the course of my life”.
Bloody Sunday, as it’s commonly referred to, took place on 7 March 1965. With the SCLC’s Hosea Williams, Lewis led 600 people to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Selma’s outskirts. There, police and mounted “posse men” – deputised civilians – blocked them.
Ordered to disperse, the procession held its ground. The troopers charged. Network cameras filmed police in gas masks brutalising unarmed men, women and children, many dressed for church. Millions that night saw police using clubs and teargas chasing terrified civilians. Lewis, his skull fractured, went to the hospital along with 77 others.
“I remember how vivid the sounds were as the troopers rushed towards us,” he wrote in his memoir, co-authored with Michael D’Orso. “The clunk of the troopers’ heavy boots, the whoops of rebel yells from the white onlookers, the clip-clop of horses’ hoofs hitting the hard asphalt, the voice of a woman shouting, ‘Get ‘em!’”
Bloody Sunday pricked the national psyche deeply. When King called for reinforcements for a second march to take place on 9 March, which he would lead, hundreds of volunteers, white and black, hurried to Selma. A white minister was beaten and killed by segregationists.
Meanwhile, Johnson had an epiphany. Widespread revulsion was so keen that strong voting rights legislation would be politically feasible after all. The president announced the details to a joint session of Congress on 15 March, equating Selma’s significance with that of Lexington, Concord and Appomattox.
When Johnson signed the bill on 6 August, Lewis viewed it as “the end of a very long road”. It was also the beginning of the process that extended the franchise to Southern blacks, including Lewis’s mother, who had opposed her son’s activism.
John Robert Lewis was born on 21 February 1940 near Troy, Alabama, the third of 10 children of Eddie Lewis and the former Willie Mae Carter. Tenant farmers for generations, they saved enough money to buy their own 100 acres in 1944.
John – called Preacher because he sermonised chickens – was the odd child out. He loved books and hated guns. He never hunted small game with other kids. His petition for access to the Pike County library went unanswered.
“White kids went to high school, Negroes to training school,” Lewis told the New York Times in 1967. “You weren’t supposed to aspire. We couldn’t take books from the public library. And I remember when the county paved rural roads, they went 15 miles out of their way to avoid blacktopping our Negro farm roads.”
College seemed impossible until the family learned of the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. Aspiring black preachers willing to take campus jobs could attend free.
He arrived determined to perfect his “whooping” – preaching at a high emotional pitch – but he soon found the pull of social activism irresistible. With other Nashville students, he came under the influence of a Vanderbilt graduate student, James Lawson, who had been imprisoned for refusing military service during the Korean War.
Years later, Lewis successfully applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam conflict and broke with Johnson over the war issue earlier than the other “Big Six” leaders.
In ad hoc workshops, Lawson taught “New Testament pacifism” (how to love rather than strike the enemy tormenting you) and Gandhi-style civil disobedience (staying calm when punched in the head).
These lessons mattered in 1960 as the Nashville Student Movement conducted sit-ins aimed at forcing retailers to allow black customers to use the stores’ eateries. Lewis experienced his first arrest when police collared the quiet young demonstrators, not the roughnecks who had been knocking them off stools.
As the Nashville campaign broadened to include other targets, Thurgood Marshall, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) legal lion, delivered a lecture at Fisk University in Nashville advising restraint. Don’t go to jail, he suggested. Let the NAACP go to court.
Lewis was appalled. Marshall’s admonitions, he said, “convinced me more than ever that our revolt was as much against this nation’s traditional black leadership structure as it was against racial segregation and discrimination”. The students ultimately prevailed in Nashville.
King wanted to blend the Nashville activists and counterparts elsewhere into an SCLC youth auxiliary. But Lawson argued that SCLC was too cautious. Discussions on the issue led to SNCC’s creation in 1960. Lewis was an enthusiastic recruit.
Even before Lewis graduated in 1961 with his preacher’s certificate, he no longer aspired to the ministry. With other SNCC members from Nashville, he volunteered to join an older group, Congress of Racial Equality (Core), in riding interstate buses throughout the south. The Supreme Court had already ruled that depots could not be segregated, but that decision was being ignored.
The “Freedom Rides” aroused fierce resistance. Arsonists torched buses in Anniston and Birmingham in Alabama. In several cities, police either looked the other way while crowds beat the riders or arrested the so-called outside agitators. Violence became so serious that Core withdrew.
The SNCC contingent refused to quit. Lewis, who absorbed his share of bruises and arrests, ended up spending 22 days in Parchman Farm, a Mississippi penitentiary infamous for primitive conditions. But the Freedom Rides drew national attention to the desegregation campaign and attracted recruits. And the Kennedy administration began formal implementation of the Supreme Court decision.
SNCC gained prominence and confidence in its strategy. “We now meant to push,” Lewis recalled. “We meant to provoke.”
But the group suffered growing pains, including unstable leadership. In June 1963, SNCC’s third chair resigned suddenly. Lewis came to Atlanta for an emergency meeting. It ended with his election as chair.
Chronically broke, SNCC paid its chair $10 a week plus rent for a dingy apartment. Lewis would hold the post for three years – longer than anyone else – but tensions scarred his experience. Continued attacks on black people in the south, growing unrest in northern ghettos and the fact that mainstream leaders declined to break with Lyndon Johnson combined to strengthen SNCC’s separatist element.
Survivors include a son, John-Miles Lewis.
Lewis was serving as executive director of the Southern Regional Council’s Atlanta-based Voter Education Project, which helped register millions of black people, when he ran unsuccessfully for a US house seat in 1977. The position had been vacated when representative Andrew Young was tapped by Jimmy Carter to become ambassador to the United Nations.
Carter subsequently named Lewis associate director of Action, then the umbrella agency of the Peace Corps, Vista and smaller antipoverty programmes. Lewis headed the domestic division.
His enthusiasm for the assignment cooled when he concluded that the White House was indifferent to Vista’s mission. He also refused to take sides when Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy challenged Carter’s renomination in 1980. His neutrality irked both camps.
Lewis resigned in 1979, returning to Atlanta determined to enter politics. He won a city council seat in 1981, part of that body’s first black majority. His initial gambit – to tighten the council’s ethics code – evoked angry resistance.
He cemented his contrarian image by opposing a major road project, arguing that it would disrupt residential neighbourhoods and worsen pollution. The road’s backers, including a group of black clergy, gave the controversy a racial tinge. Opposition to the programme, the ministers’ leaflet said, was “a vote against the [black] mayor and the black community”.
Carmichael, that faction’s charismatic leader, preached black nationalism and criticised Lewis as too measured and accommodating, a “little Martin Luther King”. In 1966, Carmichael (who later renamed himself Kwame Ture) was chosen as chair. SNCC’s white members were shunted aside and urged to leave. Even 30 years later, Lewis would say of his ouster: “It hurt me more than anything I’ve ever been through.”
Lewis eventually returned to Atlanta to join the Southern Regional Council, which sponsored community development. In 1968, he joined Robert Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, as a liaison to minorities. He was with the entourage in Los Angeles when Kennedy was assassinated.
Although the murder devastated him, campaigning had sharpened Lewis’s interest in seeking public office. So did his marriage, later that year, to Lillian Miles, a librarian by profession but a political junkie by avocation. She was one of his principal advisers until her death in 2012.
It was a familiar situation. “Once again,” Lewis observed in his memoir, “I was accused of not being black enough.” The project, reduced in scale, was approved. The cost for Lewis: outsider status throughout his five years on the council.
In 1986, when Lewis again sought the Fifth Congressional District Democratic nomination, his opponent was state senator Julian Bond, once SNCC’s publicist. Bond was considered the prohibitive favourite.
Tall, handsome and charismatic, Bond was a celebrity. Saturday Night Live had him as a guest host. Cosmopolitan magazine anointed him one of America’s 10 sexiest men. He was a lecture circuit star. Profiles described Lewis as squat, scowling, wooden, humourless.
Atlanta’s black establishment flocked to Bond. So did prominent outsiders, including then-Washington mayor Marion Barry, comedian Bill Cosby, actress Cicely Tyson and Edward Kennedy.
Lewis campaigned tirelessly, urging that citizens “vote for the tugboat, not the showboat”. He won by four percentage points because whites – particularly Jews – gave him overwhelming support. The acrid campaign corroded his once-strong friendship with Bond.
When Lewis arrived on Capitol Hill, the Times observed wryly that he was one of the few members “who must deal with the sainthood issue.”
Lewis was a nominal member of the Democratic leadership as senior chief deputy whip, but he was rarely involved in nose counting or legislative detail. Former Missouri representative Alan Wheat, a colleague in the Congressional Black Caucus, said in an interview: “John’s biggest strength in the house was to motivate people, to gather impetus for key measures. He used his standing as a cultural icon for good causes, never for personal benefit.”
On both social and economic issues, Lewis lived up to the label he put on himself: “off-the-charts liberal”. Like other members of the Black Caucus, he consistently opposed domestic spending cuts. But he was just as vehement in his opposition to the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, although many black people – particularly Georgians – disagreed.
Unlike some other black notables, Lewis refused to participate in Louis Farrakhan’s 1995 Million Man March in Washington. He also denounced Farrakhan’s antisemitic rants. When needled about racial loyalty, Lewis liked to say: “I follow my conscience, not my complexion.”
In 2010, Mr Obama awarded Lewis the presidential medal of freedom, the country’s highest civilian honour. He continued to say that his conscience demanded that he teach young people the legacy of the civil rights movement. In 2013, he began a trilogy in comic book form called March. When a former supporter of the Ku Klux Klan named Elwin Wilson popped out of history in 2009, asking forgiveness for having severely beaten then-Freedom Rider Lewis in 1961 at a Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Lewis took him on three TV shows to show that “love is stronger than hate”.
He revisited the Edmund Pettus Bridge on anniversaries of Bloody Sunday, often accompanied by political leaders of both parties. “Barack Obama,” he mused, “is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”
John R Lewis, civil rights activist and congressman, born 21 February 1940, died 17 July 2020.
John Lewis, who has died at the age of 80, was considered one of the last living icons of the United States civil rights movement of the 1960s, organising protests, enduring beatings by white police officers and mobs, and going on to have an outsized role in American politics for 60 years.
Lewis, an Alabama sharecropper's son elected in 1986 as a Democrat from Georgia to the US House of Representatives, died on Friday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
As a young man, Lewis became a protege of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr and was the youngest of the so-called Big Six activists who organised the 1963 March on Washington where King gave his iconic I Have A Dream speech.
Only 18 years old when he first met King, Lewis cut his teeth as a young activist organising sit-ins to integrate lunch counters where Black people were prohibited from sitting. He also was one of the original "Freedom Riders" who helped integrate segregated buses.
In Selma, Alabama in 1965, Lewis suffered a skull fracture during a march for Black voting rights after a savage beating by a nightstick-wielding white state trooper in an incident now remembered as "Bloody Sunday".
Searing TV images of that brutality helped galvanise national opposition to racial oppression and embolden leaders in Washington to pass the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act five months later, which removed some voting barriers for Black Americans.
"The American public had already seen so much of this sort of thing, countless images of beatings and dogs and cursing and hoses," Lewis wrote in his memoirs. "But something about that day in Selma touched a nerve deeper than anything that had come before."
He proved he was willing to risk his life for the cause of civil rights and non-violent protests on several occasions.
Beyond Selma, he was beaten by white mobs in South Carolina and Alabama during the 1961 anti-segregation bus tours called the Freedom Rides.
"I thought I was going to die a few times," he said in a 2004 interview. "I thought I saw death, but nothing can make me question the philosophy of non-violence."
For his activism, Barack Obama, the first Black US president, awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US's highest civilian honour, in 2011.
"Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind - an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time, whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now," Obama said when bestowing the award.
After winning a place on the Atlanta City Council in 1981, his first political office, Lewis successfully ran for the US House in 1986. He was re-elected 16 times, most recently in 2018. Only once did he receive less than 70 percent of the vote.
Lewis earned bipartisan respect in Washington, where some called him the "conscience of Congress", his humble manner often contrasting with the puffed chests on Capitol Hill.
However, as a liberal on the losing side of many issues, he lacked the influence he had summoned as a young activist, or would later find within the Democratic Party, as a steadfast voice for the poor and disenfranchised.
"John is an American hero who helped lead a movement and risked his life for our most fundamental rights; he bears scars that attest to his indefatigable spirit and persistence," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in December 2019 after Lewis announced his cancer diagnosis.
Lewis maintained his activist spirit while in office, continuing to fight for civil rights and issues he believed in, including immigrants' rights and gun control, once recounting he had been arrested 40 times in the 1960s and five more as a congressman.
In 2016, he organised a 24-hour sit-in on the House floor to push for gun control legislation following a shooting that killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The rare protest virtually shut down the chamber.
In January 2017 he refused to attend Trump's inauguration and said he did not view Trump as a "legitimate" president because of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to boost his candidacy.
Trump later drew bi-partisan criticism when he called Lewis "all talk" and "no action".
Lewis made his last public appearance in June, as protests for racial justice swept the US and the world following the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota, after a white officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Using a cane, Lewis walked with Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser on Black Lives Matter Plaza, a section of a street by the White House that Bowser had renamed and commissioned a large yellow mural on.
Meanwhile, amid a national movement to abolish Confederate monuments and symbols, calls have grown to rename for Lewis the bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he was brutally beaten in 1965. It is currently named for Edmund Pettus, who fought in the Confederate Army and robbed African Americans of their right to vote after Reconstruction.
Lewis, whose wife Lillian died in 2012, is survived by their son.
(1) Katharine Q. Seelye, New York Times (17th July 2020)
(2) Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006) page 104
(3) Michael Carlson, The Guardian (18th July 2020)
(4) Aljazeera (18th July 2020)
(5) Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006) page 105
(6) John Lewis, Walking with the Wind (1998) page 108
(7) Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1987) page 148
(8) Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (2014) page 46
(9) Time Magazine (2nd June, 1961)
(10) David Halberstam, The Children (1998) pages 262-263
(11) James Peck, Freedom Ride (1962) page 125
(12) Gary Thomas Rowe, My Undercover Years with the Ku Klux Klan (1976) pages 40-42
(13) Dorothy B. Kaufman, The First Freedom Ride: The Walter Bergman Story (1989) pages 154-155
(14) Laurence Barrett, The Washington Post (18th July 2020)
(15) Anthony Summers, The Guardian (1st January, 2012)
(16) Steve Hendrix, The Washington Post (August 21, 2011)
(17) Paul Le Blanc, Monthly Review (1st September, 2013)
(18) David J. Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1983) pages 153-56
(19) New York Herald Tribune (25th June, 1963)
(20) Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1987) pages 198-199
(21) Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (1988) page 877
(22) John Lewis, speech at the March on Washington (28th August, 1963)
(23) Martin Luther King, speech at the March on Washington (28th August, 1963)
(24) John F. Kennedy, speech on television (11th June, 1963)
(25) Richard B. Russell, speech in the Senate on his opposition to the Civil Rights Act (18th June, 1964)
(26) Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1987) page 202
(27) Katharine Q. Seelye, New York Times (17th July 2020)
(28) Aljazeera (18th July 2020)
(29) Lyndon Baines Johnson, speech on television (15th March, 1965)
(30) Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1987) page 285
(31) Lyndon Baines Johnson, speech at Howard University (4th June, 1965)
(32) Michael Carlson, The Guardian (18th July 2020)
(33) Barrett Holmes Pitner, John Lewis, US Civil Rights Champion (18th July 2020)
(34) William Yardley, The New York Times (1st April, 2013)
(35) Michael Carlson, The Guardian (18th July 2020)
(36) Katharine Q. Seelye, New York Times (17th July 2020)
(37) Aljazeera (18th July 2020)
(38) Katharine Q. Seelye, New York Times (17th July 2020)