In the midst of a modern-day civil rights movement, birthed from the death of George Floyd, we have lost a civil rights pioneer. John Lewis endured more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries all the while remaining a devoted advocate to the philosophy of nonviolence. He never left the frontlines of getting in “good trouble” when it came to standing for civil rights. He dedicated every inch of his life to fighting injustice of all kinds from the streets to the halls of Congress.
The son of sharecroppers, Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, outside of Troy, Alabama. He grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. In his youth, he was inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to become an activist.
As a student at Fisk University, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters and volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. He risked his life and took severe beatings by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South.
Standing by his convictions by standing for what he believed in, Lewis became a nationally recognized leader. From 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization was responsible for organizing student activism including sit-ins and other activities. He was named one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. At the age of 23, he was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963.
In 1964, Lewis coordinated SNCC to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. Along with Hosea Williams, Lewis led over 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. The march, from Selma to Montgomery, was to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state.
The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” News broadcasts and photographs revealed the senseless cruelty of the segregated South helped to bring about the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
After leaving SNCC in 1966, he continued his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement as associate director of the Field Foundation and his participation in the Southern Regional Council’s voter registration programs. He went on to become director of the Voter Education Project (VEP). Under his leadership, VEP added nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls.
In 1977, Lewis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency. In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council, where he was an advocate for ethics in government and neighborhood preservation. He was elected to Congress in November 1986 and has served as U.S. Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since then. Lewis was Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House, a member of the House Ways & Means Committee, a member of its Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, and ranking member of its Subcommittee on Oversight.
Lewis holds a B.A. in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University, and is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville, Tennessee. He has been awarded over 50 honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities throughout the United States, including Harvard University, Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Duke University, Morehouse College, Clark-Atlanta University, Howard University, Brandeis University, Columbia University, Fisk University, and Troy State University.
He is the recipient of numerous awards from eminent national and international institutions, including the highest civilian honor granted by President Barack Obama, the Medal of Freedom, the Lincoln Medal from the historic Ford’s Theatre, the Golden Plate Award given by the Academy of Excellence, the Preservation Hero award given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Capital Award of the National Council of La Raza, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, the President’s Medal of Georgetown University, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the National Education Association Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award, and the only John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for Lifetime Achievement ever granted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
Other accolades include Lewis working 15 years to gain approval for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He met bipartisan success in Congress in 2006 when he led efforts to renew the Voting Rights Act, but the Supreme Court later invalidated much of the law.
Lewis co-authored of the #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novel memoir trilogy “MARCH,” written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. Garnering many accolades and awards, The MARCH series is used in schools across the country to teach the Civil Rights Movement to the next generation of young activists, and has been selected as a First-Year common reading text at colleges and universities such as Michigan State University, Georgia State University, Marquette University, University of Utah, Henderson State University, University of Illinois Springfield, Washburn University, and many others. He is also the author of “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons” and “a Vision for Change,” written with Brenda Jones, and winner of the 2012 NAACP Image Award for Best Literary Work-Biography. His biography, published in 1998, is entitled “Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.”
He has been interviewed for numerous documentaries, news broadcasts, journals and recently featured in in the documentary, “John Lewis: Good Trouble.” The documentary traverses his life as an activist set among interviews, images and footage of the early Civil Rights Movement.
Lewis had announced in late December 2019 that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. The announcement of his death came just hours after the passing of the Rev. C.T. Vivian, another civil rights leader, who died early Friday, July 17 at the age 95.
Lewis’ wife of four decades, Lillian Miles, preceded him in death in 2012. They are survived by their son, John Miles Lewis.
Those in Congress, and many others, who worked closely with Lewis and across social media, shared their thought and memories about Lewis.
“I saw John Lewis last week. He was still that determined John Lewis that was a man of faith. He knew from the time that he started at 15 that any day could be his last. He lived like he didn’t want to waste a single day — and he didn’t!” —Andrew Young
“#JohnLewis was a longtime personal mentor, a hero and a friend. It’s a devastating loss.” —Marc Morial
“It was the honor of my life to serve alongside such a kind, courageous, and persistent leader and public servant. I considered John and his late wife, Lillian, dear friends, and my heart is heavy with the magnitude of the loss of one of our nation’s most beloved sons. My sincere prayers and deepest sympathies are with his son, John Miles Lewis, family, friends, staff, and constituents during this difficult time.” — Congresswoman Maxine Waters
“Congressman John Lewis was an American hero—a giant, whose shoulders upon many of us stand. Throughout his life, he showed unending courage, generosity, and love for our country. We are grateful that John Lewis never lost sight of how great our country can be. He carried the baton of progress and justice to the very end. It now falls on us to pick it up and march on. We must never give up, never give in, and keep the faith.” — U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris
“All of us were humbled to call Congressman Lewis a colleague, and are heartbroken by his passing. May his memory be an inspiration that moves us all to, in the face of injustice, make ‘good trouble, necessary trouble.’” — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
“A pioneering civil rights leader who put his life on the line to fight racism, promote equal rights, and bring our nation into greater alignment with its founding principles. ”— Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
“We danced all night. My heart hurts. We’ve got some big shoes to fill. Let’s make him proud of us. RIP Congressman John Lewis.” —Jenifer Lewis
He got into “good trouble” for country he believed in, for a country that oftentimes, doesn’t believe in its people. It was a necessary effort and his life proved that point, that getting into “trouble,” for the right reasons, will result in better lives for everyone. He summed it up best and has left us with more than few indelible words of wisdom.
“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something. Our children and their children will ask us ’what did you do? what did you say?’” stated Lewis.
“We have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”