John Lewis

John Lewis

February 28, 2021 | Black History Month, Flow BLOG

John Lewis
John Lewis in 2006
Photo Credit: U.S. House of Representatives

In 2018, John Lewis shared this message on social media:

“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.”

From his days fighting segregation in the American South to his time in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lewis was not afraid to make some good noise and get into “Good Trouble.” That two-word phrase became his motto, and he lived it every day.

Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940 on a sharecropping farm owned by a white man near Troy, Ala. His parents Eddie and Willie Mae Carter Lewis saved $300 to buy their own farm of 110 acres. It had no electricity or plumbing.

Lewis and his nine siblings helped with the farm work. They left school at harvest time to pick cotton, peanuts, and corn.

Lewis looked after the chickens. He read to them from the Bible, baptized the chicks, and held funerals when they died.

In his memoir, Walking With the Wind, Lewis wrote, “I was truly intent on saving the little birds’ souls. I could imagine that they were my congregation. And me, I was a preacher.”

Lewis preached his first public sermon five days before he turned 16. A local newspaper wrote about his sermon and took his picture. Lewis said, “That was the first time I ever saw my name in print,”

In 1957 he became the first member of his family to complete high school, and he enrolled at the American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College) in Nashville. He worked as a dishwasher and janitor to pay for his education. He graduated from the seminary in 1961.

Lewis was inspired by a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. He listed to him on the radio and followed the 1955-56 Montgomery Ala. bus boycott in the newspaper. In 1958, Lewis wrote a letter to Dr. King, who sent him a round-trip bus ticket to visit him in Montgomery.

While at seminary in Nashville, Lewis met Rev. James Lawson, who led nonviolence workshops for students.

In October 1959, those students formed the Nashville Student Movement, and on Feb. 13, 1960 they organized Nashville’s first sit-in.

In 1961, Lewis joined a Freedom Ride organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The Riders challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the American south and in Washington, D.C. The Freedom Rides were violent and bloody.

In Rock Hill, S.C., the Riders were beaten when they tried to enter a whites-only waiting room at the bus station.

In Montgomery, Ala., Lewis was left unconscious in a pool of his own blood outside the Greyhound Bus Terminal after he and others were attacked by hundreds of white people. Several others were badly injured and one Rider 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.”

Lewis was a founder and early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which organized lunch-counter sit-ins and other nonviolent events. He became their chairman in 1963.

At the age of 23, Lewis was a keynote speaker at the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was scheduled to speak before Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his speech, Lewis intended to criticize President John F. Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill as “too little to late.”

But Dr. King and other members told Lewis to tone down his speech, as they were worried the speech would offend the Kennedy administration.

Instead, Lewis told the crowd outside the Lincoln Memorial, “By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers, 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.”

On March 7, 1965, Lewis led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. A peaceful group of 600 people marched in favour of the voting rights denied to Blacks. The group met heavily armed state and local police who attacked them with batons, tear gas, bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. One trooper cracked Lewis’s skull and knocked him to the ground with a baton.

The event became known as Bloody Sunday.

The television images shocked the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965.

“I gave a little blood on that bridge,” Lewis said years later. “I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death.”

In 1967, Lewis graduated from Fisk University with a Bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Lewis in charge of ACTION, the umbrella federal volunteer agency that included the Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA).

In 1977, Lewis ran for the U.S. House of Representatives but lost.

He won a seat on the Atlanta City Council in 1981 and in 1986 he ran again for the House against Julian Bond, a friend and former close associate from the Civil Rights Movement.

Lewis won in an upset, with 52 percent of the vote. He served the people of Georgia’s fifth congressional district until his death in 2020.

Lewis continued to make “Good Trouble” while in Congress.

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, angry protestors shouted obscenities and racial slurs at Lewis and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus due to their support of President Obama’s health care bill.

“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 the massacre at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub left 49 people dead, Lewis led a sit-in on the House floor to protest federal inaction on gun control.

Lewis’s fight for civil rights earned him over 50 honourary degrees.

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

During the White House ceremony, the President 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.”

In 2018, Lewis appeared as himself on an episode of the children’s show, Arthur. He visited Arthur’s school and encouraged him to plan a sit-in to support the lunchroom attendant, Mrs. MacGrady.

Lewis announced on Dec. 29, 2019 that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He vowed to continue his work.

“I may miss a few votes during this period, but with God’s grace I will be back on the front lines soon,” he said.

He died on July 17, 2020 at the age of 80 and became the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the rotunda of the U.S. capitol.

Even in death, Lewis was getting into “Good Trouble.”


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