On Friday July 17th, the nation lost one of its great statesmen in the person of Congressman John Lewis from the State of Georgia. Born the son of a sharecropper in Troy Alabama he grew up under times and conditions of oppression where people of color in the state of Georgia were marginalized. John Lewis was well acquainted with poverty, racial injustice, discrimination, voter suppression and all the byproducts of segregation. Nevertheless, he was filled with compassion and at an early age set out to make a difference and make some changes in the nation. He became a towering figure and symbol for freedom, justice and equal rights all over the world.
In a letter written to himself as a teenager, he mentioned that in 1956 at the age of 16 he and some family members went to the local library and were met at the door and told that the library was for whites only, not for coloreds. That was the spark that ignited a fire in Congressman Lewis’ belly that led to a long and storied career in the Civil Rights Movement. Inspired by the work of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he later wrote a moving letter to Dr. King, Jr. and was invited by King to join in the none violent movement, a relationship that lasted throughout Dr. King’s life.
Congressman Lewis was well acquainted with the Civil Rights movement, struggles for freedom and justice, Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, systematic discrimination to keep African Americans bound to poverty and relegated to second-class citizenship. He participated in Civil Rights marches and protests in the south, in sit ins at all white lunch counters where white citizens rushed and viciously attacked him and poured hot water and coffee down the back of his shirt. Lewis became a freedom rider and was arrested more than 45 times for participation in marches and sit-ins at segregated facilities throughout the south. With the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which Lewis was actively involved in drafting, he noted that he was proud to witness the moment when his mama and daddy could vote and to see the first black citizen elected President of the United States. Sadly to mention, although the fifteenth amendment to the United State Constitution guaranteed African Americans the right to vote, this right was deliberately stripped away from them through the passage of a wave of Jim Crow laws that ultimately disenfranchised people of color (poll taxes, literacy tests, etc.) thus disallowing them to participate in the political process.
Emboldened by the non-violent movement, John Lewis was never deterred by the often violent and inhumane treatment he received from white racists and bigoted men. Because of overt racism and discrimination in Alabama during the sixties, Congressman Lewis along with hundreds of civil right marchers set out to lead a Civil Right demonstration march from Selma to Montgomery (Alabama’s state capitol.) As they descended from the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, marchers were met with a large contingent of white police officers (State Troopers) on foot and horseback, who called to the crowd of marchers to immediately disperse. When the marchers refused, the police began to push and beat them with billy clubs and trample marchers with horses. John Lewis was severely beaten and injured along with hundreds of other marchers. He commented, “I thought I was going to die that day.” Bloody and injured bodies were left unattended to die. Tested time and time again, brutally beaten by a mob of white police officers; Lewis never gave up on the human race. He continued to maintain that we are “ONE”. Fifty years later dignitaries from all over the nation gather each year to celebrate what has become known as “Bloody Sunday.” His faith in God and country kept him going until; the very end. Several weeks ago, (though with weakened and compromised body strength), Lewis stood with the mayor of Washington DC on the Black Lives Matter street sign that was painted in front of the White House and proclaimed “never to give up.”
The “good troubles” his grandfather warned him not to become involved in, allowed him to see his mom and dad cast their vote in the state of Georgia. Through his work he witnessed the removal of the “white only & for Colored signs” come down. And many years later after releasing his book entitled “Walking in the Wind,” the same library that he was unable to enter because it was for “white’s only” invited him back for a book signing and presented him with a library card. My, my, my what a story!
John Lewis served for more than thirty years in the U.S. Congress. His ability to work across the aisle, and his propensity to continue getting in “good trouble” propelled him to the fulfillment of our ancestors “wildest dreams.” As an early leader and one of the organizers of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNNC), as the youngest speaker to address the 1963 March on Washington, his work has inspired generations of men and women of color to become engaged in a national movement for justice and equality for all. Though an incredibly courageous leader, he seems to have had a perfect pitch for the work that was set before him. He was, often described as a man of humility, integrity and power. In his speech before the 1963 March on Washington, he touted: “we want our freedom, we want it now.” Lewis continued to remind us to “Wake up, we cannot go back.” John Lewis was often referred to as the conscious of the nation. Our condolences go out to the Lewis family. The nation thanks the Lewis family for lending The Honorable John Lewis to the world for the brief moment in time we call life. Rest in peace good brother.
Dr. Herbert Simmons, Jr. is an associate Professor, Department of Criminal Justice, Grambling State University, former President, Grambling State University Faculty Senate and former Chair, Department of Consumer Education and Resource Management, Howard University, Washington, D.C.