The passing of John Lewis has left a void in the soul of black America — and American society. For generations, Lewis has served as an icon of human rights and simple dignity. Without his grace and goodwill, the nation is worse off.
There is an odd symmetry in Lewis’s death. Yesterday, we also learned of the passing of another civil rights veteran, C. T. Vivian. That both deaths come in a year of resurgence for the Black Lives Matter movement and increased talk of a “Third Reconstruction” only means we must find a deeper reservoir for understanding the trials and travails of the Second Reconstruction — the Civil Rights Movement. Born in 1940, Lewis was part of the radical younger generation of activists who launched the great sit-ins and Freedom Rides, exemplifying the early optimism — and determination — of the period.
Lewis came from a humble background. His parents were sharecroppers in Alabama, and he never lost the keen awareness of the degradations of being poor and black in the Deep South. Lewis was denied access to his local library as a young boy, an incident that still stung him many years later — he was brought to tears thinking about it in 2016 during the award ceremony for the graphic novel series March based on his life.
Lewis’s participation in the Civil Rights Movement began in Nashville, Tennessee, where he attended the historically black Fisk University. As part of the Nashville student movement, which boasted leaders such as Diane Nash, James Bevel, and C. T. Vivian, Lewis took part in numerous sit-ins across the city and helped secure one of the early victories of the Civil Rights Movement: some of the lunch counters in downtown Nashville desegregated by mid-1960. For Lewis and others, this was their first baptism by fire in the Civil Rights Movement. Soon, he would face still more tests.
The Freedom Rides of 1961 took Lewis across the South. Cities like Rock Hill, South Carolina and Anniston, Alabama became nationally known due to the violence visited upon the Freedom Riders. The latter location was the most dangerous on the route, but Lewis continued to press on. Trained in the principles of nonviolence, Lewis always held steadfast to the belief in a “beloved community,” a place for black and white Americans to prosper together. As Lewis later wrote in his memoir, Walking in the Wind, he was also committed to a particular kind of social gospel, similar to Martin Luther King Jr. “I was sold on the social gospel,” Lewis wrote, reflecting on his college years and his intellectual and spiritual awakening, “and I began to feel a sense of obligation to do something.”
Lewis was part of a generation of civil rights activists who were heavily influenced by those who came before them. He was schooled in civil disobedience at the Highlander Folk School, learning from older activists like Septima Clark (herself trained by veteran activists of the black freedom movement). Joining the newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis continued to work alongside younger black Americans in the struggle to create a more just country.
Lewis’s participation in the movement eventually landed him at the Lincoln Memorial for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The youngest speaker there, Lewis was also the most militant. “My friends, let us not forget that we are in a serious social revolution,” Lewis said, in a speech wherein his radicalism had been tempered at the request of more moderate speakers who feared upsetting President John F. Kennedy.
Lewis spoke for generations of black Americans and showed the world the fire that pushed many into activism in the early 1960s. Criticizing the weaknesses of the civil rights bill President Kennedy was offering that summer, Lewis — like the other speakers at the march — tied together the racial, political, and economic problems of America: “People have been forced to leave their homes because they dared to exercise their right to register to vote. What is there in this bill to ensure the equality of a maid who earns $5 a week in the home of a family whose income is $100,000 a year?”
Many Americans, even if they are not familiar with Lewis’s early struggles for freedom in the Civil Rights Movement, know him for his heroism on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 1965 Selma campaign for voting rights. Beaten over the head and nearly killed, Lewis’s bravery — along with that of many other activists in Alabama in the winter and early spring of 1965 — pushed the world to bear witness, Martin Luther King Jr to lead a march over the same bridge, and Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In conventional accounts, the life and career of Lewis jump straight from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the halls of Congress, where he served as Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District representative beginning in 1987. However, between those two periods Lewis advanced the cause in a variety of roles.
Losing his leadership role in the SNCC amid the rise of Stokely Carmichael and Black Power, Lewis worked with the Field Foundation in New York in the mid-1960s. Later that decade, he led the Community Organization Project for the Southern Regional Council. By 1970, Lewis was the director of the Voter Education Project, where he helped register hundreds of thousands of new voters, mostly African-American, across the South.
Lewis believed strongly in the move from activism in the 1960s to voting in the 1970s, seeing it — as many other activists did — as essential in continuing and maintaining the struggle for black freedom. “The vote is the most powerful weapon that black people can use on the road to liberation,” Lewis told Ebony magazine in 1976.
Eventually, Lewis himself entered the realm of electoral politics. He first served several terms as an at-large representative on Atlanta’s city council. Then in 1986, he upset friend and fellow veteran of the movement Julian Bond in the Democratic primary for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. The race, filled with nasty rumors about corruption and drug use, damaged their relationship for years.
It would be a mistake to merely freeze the image and life of Lewis in the amber of photographs from the civil rights era. As a congressman, Lewis was not afraid to take controversial votes that put him at odds with other Democrats. He opposed both the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and the Iraq War in 2003. He refused to support the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, speaking up as a champion for LGTB rights in Congress when few did so. “I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color,” Lewis said on the floor of the House in 1996, “not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation.”
Perhaps Lewis’s most important act as a member of Congress was his instrumental role in creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He first introduced legislation to establish the museum in 1988, but it was not until 2003 that Congress passed funding for it. He was often blocked in the Senate by conservative icon Jesse Helms, who adamantly opposed building the museum.
John Lewis, like so many other civil rights activists, followed a winding and dangerous road from sit-ins and street protests to insider politics and the day-to-day grind of lawmaking. Yet this son of sharecroppers retained his moral core, doing his best to take principled stances against US imperialism abroad and racism and discrimination at home. At times, it felt to younger activists that Lewis was merely a glistening symbol of the past — in particular when he tossed his support behind Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary. But for Lewis, this was just the usual mix of optimism tinged with what he saw as careful, concerned pragmatism.
Since the turn of the century, legends such as Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Vincent Harding, Julian Bond, C. T. Vivian, and now John Lewis have left us. The heroes of that bygone era of civil rights struggle leave, to us, a continuing mission of fighting for freedom and justice for all. It will be up to us — all of us — to live up to the ideals of John Lewis.