John Lewis
Credit: Lorie Shaull

John Lewis, civil rights leader, social activist, and congressman died on Friday, July 17th. Lewis had been fighting non-violently for most of his life, against mobs of angry white segregationalists to most recently, Stage 4 pancreatic cancer; he was 80 years old. 

Nancy Pelosi released an official statement yesterday announcing Lewis’ death:

“John Lewis was a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation – from the determination with which he met discrimination at lunch counters and on Freedom Rides, to the courage he showed as a young man facing down violence and death on Edmund Pettus Bridge, to the moral leadership he brought to the Congress for more than 30 years.

Nancy Pelosi, statement on the Passing of Congressman John Lewis

Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, in a segregated, rural Alabama to share-croppers. He helped out on his family’s farm, leaving school at harvest time to pick cotton, peanuts, and corn. As a teenager, Lewis would list to another young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio. One day he wrote a letter to Dr. King, who responded by sending Lewis a round-trip bus ticket to visit him in Montgomery in 1958; less than two years later, Lewis was on the frontlines peacefully fighting for Black rights. In 1960, Lewis’ first arrest came after staging a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in Nashville, he and the other protesting students joined together to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Within three months, after the repeated sit-ins became publicized, the city gave in and Nashville became the first major Southern city to begin desegregating public facilities. 

Lewis was beaten and arrested 40 times between 1960 to 1966 but was never discouraged from fighting for racial justice. He went on to be one of the original 13 Freedom Riders in 1961 and helped organize the March on Washington, where Dr. King gave his iconic “I have a dream” speech. In 1965, Lewis led one of the most famous marches in American history across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Lewis and the protesters were greeted by state troopers who responded with tear gas and whips. A trooper with a billy club cracked Lewis’ skull and continued to beat him as he fell to the ground. The televised images of Lewis and what came to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ helped ignite the support for the Voting Rights Act. The law struck down literacy tests that black people were required to take before being allowed to vote; this changed history and the political landscape of the South. 

Almost 20 years later, Lewis ran for public office in Atlanta and was elected in 1986, becoming the second African-American from Georgia in Congress since Reconstruction. Lewis went on to have a 33-year career in politics and was nicknamed by his colleagues “the conscience of the Congress.” In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, stating that Lewis is “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.” Lewis stuck true to his non-violent and activist roots throughout his career, skipping the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush, boycotting Donald Trump’s 2016 inauguration, and leading a sit-in on the House floor to protest federal gun control after the 2016 massacre at the Orlando gay nightclub that killed 49 people and injured several more. 

President Barack Obama awards the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Congressman John Lewis
President Barack Obama awards the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Congressman John Lewis in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House February 15, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Lewis lived by his motto of getting into “good trouble,” doing what has to be done for the rights of the human race at large. Filmmaker Dawn Proter’s documentary on Lewis’ extraordinary life was named after the motto and was released earlier this month. John Lewis: Good Trouble chronicles Lewis’ life and his 60-plus years of social activism and legislative action on civil rights, voting rights, gun control, healthcare reform, and immigration through rare archival footage and interviews of those who knew him best. In a CBS interview with Gale King, Lewis spoke on the unjust killing of George Floyd and the recent global protests: “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.'” 

John Lewis leaves behind several siblings, his son John-Miles Lewis, and his message of getting into good trouble, inspiring us to dedicate our lives to justice and fight for what we believe in until the very end. 

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