U.S. Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis died on July 17th, 2020 from pancreatic cancer. After representing Georgia’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives for over 30 years, one of our strongest soldiers against racial injustice passed away at the age of 80.
I think young people today should look at everything he did in his early 20’s and realize that no matter how young you are, you can make a huge difference in society. I personally appreciate him the most for putting himself in harm’s way just so I can vote.
That being said, please honor his memory by hitting the polls this year in 2020. He shed a lot of blood in his life for us to be able do so.
The Early Life of Congressman John Lewis
I think that former United States President Barack Obama said it best when describing Congressman Lewis’ early life while giving his eulogy at the funeral that was held in Atlanta on July 30th. “John was born into modest means,” he said. “That means he was po’.”
Not poor, but po’. As a person who has lived a low-income life, I know that po’ is a lot worse.
The city he was born near, Troy, Alabama, had been burned to the ground just a few decades before he came into the world. His parents were humble, poverty-stricken sharecroppers, and had a hard life to put it lightly. Sources that mention the burning down of Troy in 1901 don’t clearly say why the city was destroyed, or whether it was purposefully done. But, it’s no secret that similar events in the early 1900’s, such as the Burning of Black Wall Street a.k.a The Tulsa Oklahoma Race Massacre, were racially motivated.
Growing up seeing how African-Americans were so discriminated against in the Jim Crow South, John decided from a very young age that he would make it his life’s purpose to denounce racial segregation and promote equal human rights in America. In fact, he was only 21-years-old when he was arrested for being one of the original Freedom Riders.
This was a group that was started in the late 1940’s by the Congress of Racial Equality, also known as C.O.R.E. According to the New York Times, they started a movement called the Journey of Reconciliation, one where they put themselves in danger of constant verbal and physical harm from racist Whites of the time by riding buses around the southern part of the United States as a nonviolent way of protesting against segregation in the public transportation system.
Most people see Congressman Lewis as a disciple of the late Civil Rights Leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., because he took the route of nonviolence while standing up for racial equality. When he was just in his mid-20’s, John became the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This shy, but bold Fisk University college kid, would regularly sacrifice his own life and limb during his peaceful demonstrations against Jim Crow laws.
John got locked up over forty times, and beat up by racist white mobs on a regular basis, just so we as Black people can live a better life today. Things that we take for granted today (like freely jumping on a Greyhound bus and going wherever we want to, or sitting at a Waffle House enjoying a meal), he had to take severe bodily harm and repeated incidents of incarceration for us to be able to enjoy.
Like many of us, Dr. King was such a huge influence on his life. Congressman Lewis was actually the last living speaker from the March on Washington, which was the event where Martin’s “I Have a Dream” speech was given. A little known fact is that John almost didn’t even get to make his speech that day because of the language he wanted to use in it.
According to The Washington Post, when the Archbishop of Washington, Patrick O’Boyle, found out beforehand that Lewis’ speech referred to the term “patience” as a “dirty and nasty word”, he made the young man take the line out before allowing him to take the podium. Apparently, that type of language was offensive to the Catholic Church, so they made him tone it down a little bit.
With everything that he’s done in an attempt to achieve equal rights in this country for it’s now 13.4% of African-Americans, I still think the most important thing John Lewis did for his and this current generation is stand up for our right to vote. Bloody Sunday, the horrible event that eventually helped to push the Voting Rights Act into existence, was to me the most potent example of his bravery during that dismal time in history.
Congressman John Lewis’ Bravery on Bloody Sunday
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been trying for several months to get Black folks registered to vote in Selma’s County seat. Then, early in 1965, Dr. King came to that area in Alabama to back them up for their cause. With him being such a well-known figure in America in the fight for equal rights, there were of course a lot more peaceful demonstrations spontaneously initiated in and around the Selma area at that point and time, simply because of his dynamic influence.
You can just imagine how the tensions between racist people and those who were doing the demonstrations had to be brewing from the time he got there at the beginning of January until mid-February, when the event that triggered the March from Selma to Montgomery occured. In Marion, Alabama, about a month after Dr. King had arrived in the area, some state troopers became increasingly aggressive in beating protesters with clubs, and one of them ended up shooting a young demonstrator named Jimmie Lee Jackson.
A cop shot the 26-year-old African-American man when he was just trying to stop the police from beating up his mama. After that, civil rights leaders had had enough, and they decided that they were gonna march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, straight to Governor Wallace’s doorstep to state their issues. They got the permission of President Lyndon Johnson, and the Commander in Chief ordered the National Guard to protect them on their five-day journey.
When Lewis, King, and the other over 600 marchers reached the bridge that is named after the Confederate general and leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Edmund Pettus, I can imagine the eerie feeling that must have been thick in the air. When Lewis and the protesters got to the top of the bridge, they could see a huge wall of state troopers, brandishing their billy clubs.
Lewis and those at the front of the marchers stood their ground dozens of feet away from them at the foot of the bridge, and tried to talk to and reason with the angry racists. They refused, and proceeded to beat the protesters with everything from whips to barbed wire wrapped sticks.
The late Congressman John Lewis suffered a fractured skull during Bloody Sunday. The bridge is to this day still named after the Klan leader, but there are now talks of renaming it in John’s honor.
Not only as Black man, but as a man, I just want to say Thank you, John Lewis, for everything you did for me and my generation. May your fighting soul now rest peacefully.