Remembering John Lewis
Hannah Rae writes about the late member of Congress and long time civil rights advocate John Lewis.
John Lewis, prominent civil rights leader and politician, has died following a six-month battle with cancer.
He was the final surviving member of the ‘Big Six’ group of civil rights leaders who organised one of the most important moments in the civil rights movement, the March on Washington. Lewis’ legacy is one of seeking equal treatment for black people, as well as for LGBTQ+ groups and women, throughout his life.
Whilst at university, Lewis organised sit-ins in protest of the segregated lunch counters in Nashville. This Nashville sit-in movement successfully led to the desegregation of lunch counters in the city. Lewis was arrested and jailed many times for the part he played in the nonviolent movement, but continued in his crucial roles organising other nonviolent protests, such as bus boycotts, in his fight for equal rights.
Lewis is perhaps best known for his role in ‘Bloody Sunday’, in which he and fellow activist Hosea Williams led more than 600 protesters in a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in demand of equal voting rights for black citizens. On Edmund-Pettus Bridge police brutally assaulted the nonviolent protesters, leaving Lewis with a fractured skull.
It is hard not to draw parallels with today with the footage of George Floyd’s brutal murder.
The televised footage of police violence against marchers in Selma shocked many, which in turn helped in the passing of the Voting Rights Act, forcing politicians to face the reality of the ill treatment of civil rights activists by police. This act greatly increased voter turnout, particularly among black people.
It is hard not to draw parallels with today with the footage of George Floyd’s brutal murder providing a wake-up call to many as to the extent to which racism persists in society and triggering a new movement against racism. But also the violent treatment of – largely nonviolent – protesters by police; so much has changed and yet, so much still has not. John Lewis spoke of the demonstrations in June, telling CBS: “you may use troopers […], but it cannot be stopped. There cannot be any turning back. We have come too far and made too much progress to stop now and go back”.
Lewis served 17 terms in the US House of Representatives as a Democrat, after first being elected to Congress in 1986. He ultimately became the dean of the Georgia congressional delegation for his length of service, representing a district that included the majority of Atlanta. He drew on his experience in the Civil Rights Movement in his political career and was known for being a strong liberal, supporting gay rights and national health insurance.
He took an annual trip back to Alabama to retrace the route marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which displayed his continued fight for equal rights, but also served as a reminder of the atrocities that occurred on ‘Bloody Sunday’. Following his death, Lewis was able to take this route a final time as his coffin was taken over the bridge many are calling to be renamed after Lewis himself.
Since his death, political figures on both the left and right have been united in their admiration of Lewis’ actions and life, and he is the first African-American lawmaker to lie in state in the United States Capitol Rotunda. These serve as final confirmation that the “good trouble, necessary trouble” that Lewis supported throughout his life in the pursuit of change, has succeeded.