A couple of weeks ago we lost a genuine civil rights pioneer. He was in the forefront of the movement for some 65 years beginning in 1955. Furthermore, his life was truly a “rags to riches” story that is possible only in America.
John Robert Lewis was born on February 21, 1940 on a farm outside of Troy, AL, the third of ten children. His parents were sharecroppers. It is hard to believe that a man of such accomplishments arose from such humble beginnings, but he did. As I said, “only in America.”
As a youngster, Lewis wanted to be a preacher. Supposedly, he would practice his sermons on the farm’s chickens. In the rural segregated South, at first, he had very little interaction with white people and was not aware of the racism that was a way of life. As get got older, however, and began to accompany his family into the nearby town, that changed in a hurry. Then, he thought “Jim Crow” was the way of life everywhere until, at the age of 11, he and his family traveled to Buffalo, NY to visit relatives. It was a real eye-opener. He couldn’t help but contrast the stark differences of the integrated North with the segregated South.
Lewis’ life began to change in 1955 when he heard a speech by Martin Luther King on the radio. Thereafter, he began to follow King’s career, particularly the Montgomery, AL bus boycott that year. A few years later he actually met King and even Rosa Parks.
At the same time, he was pursuing his goal of becoming a minister. He began to give public sermons. Moreover, he attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, and was ordained as a Baptist minister. In addition, he graduated from Fisk University with a Bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy.
During his student days he remained immersed in the civil rights movement in Nashville. Following the precepts of non-violence practiced by Dr. King he organized and participated in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, bus boycotts and a variety of other protests. Although these were successful and Lewis was an advocate of non-violence he was arrested many times.
In 1961 Lewis was one of the original 13 “freedom riders.” The Supreme Court had mandated the integration of interstate bus travel, but the ruling was not being enforced in many areas of the South. The 13 whites and blacks determined to ride from Washington, D. C. to New Orleans in an integrated fashion to force the issue. As you can surmise, they were attacked and beaten by unruly mobs and arrested. For example, in Birmingham the crowd beat them with chains, baseball bats, lead pipes and stones, and then the police arrested them and transported them across the state line to Tennessee. The “riders” were not dissuaded. They went to Montgomery where they were assaulted again. This time, Lewis was beaten unconscious and left for dead on the floor of the Montgomery bus station. As he told a CNN interviewer years later, “I thought I was going to die.” Incredibly, 48 years later Lewis received a nationally-televised apology from the Klansman who had beaten him so severely.
Lewis was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“SNCC”), and in 1963 he became the chairman of the group. SNCC was noted for its non-violent approach to the advancement of civil rights. For example, it established Freedom Schools and organized voting registration campaigns throughout the South.
On March 9, 1965 Lewis was one of the organizers and leaders of the famous march from Selma, AL to Montgomery, which included some 600 persons. This was actually the first of three such marches. Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 voter registration of blacks was severely lagging. For example, in Dallas County blacks comprised some 50% of the population but only 2% of the registered voters. The purpose of the march was to highlight this disparity.
As the marchers walked over the Edmund Pettus bridge, peacefully, they were nevertheless viciously attacked by police. Lewis was among those who were severely beaten on national tv. The incident became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The naked violence of this attack shocked and disgusted much of the tv audience. Much of the public in the North had not really appreciated the gravity of the situation in the South, and this incident brought it home to them very graphically. Many of the marchers, including Lewis and King, were arrested. From his jail cell King wrote a letter to the NY Times in which he stated, facetiously, “there are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls [in Selma].” Many people maintain that that incident was a turning point in the civil rights movement.
In 2014, the incident was portrayed in the movie, Selma in which Lewis was played by Stephan James. The movie, which was very well done, exposed a whole new generation to the violence of the times and the early struggle for equal rights.
In 1986 Lewis was elected to the US House of Representatives representing the district that encompasses much of Atlanta. He was very popular. He was re-elected 16 times, all but once with more than 70% of the vote. During his tenure he continued to aggressively champion liberal causes.
In 2008 he supported Barack Obama for the presidency. When Obama was elected Lewis was asked if this represented “the fulfillment of MLK’s dream.” He replied: “No. It’s just a down payment.” In 2016 he supported Clinton over Trump. He unfairly compared Mr. Trump to George Wallace and declined to attend his inauguration. This year his endorsement of Joe Biden is generally credited with Biden’s winning the Democratic presidential nomination.
In my opinion, in stark contrast to the many pseudo advocates of civil rights who are currently polluting the airwaves and newspapers and are nothing more than “race baiters,” Lewis was a legitimate hero of the civil rights movement. He was there at the very beginning in 1955. He organized and attended many of the rallies, marches and sit-ins. He was beaten and arrested numerous times. He advocated non-violence. He paid his dues in blood. As a Congressman he remained a strong advocate for civil rights and other liberal causes.
Lewis was the recipient of countless awards and honors, too many to list here. The most prestigious was the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was also an accomplished author.
Lewis passed away on July 17 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. Rest in peace John. Even though you are no longer with us your legacy will live forever.