Obituary: Remembering US civil rights icon John Lewis

The renowned activist, who brought his lifelong fight for civil rights to Congress, died on Friday at the age of 80.

John Lewis civil rights
As a young man, Lewis became a protege of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr [File: Yuri Gripas/Reuters]

John Lewis, who has died at the age of 80, was considered one of the last living icons of the United States civil rights movement of the 1960s, organising protests, enduring beatings by white police officers and mobs, and going on to have an outsized role in American politics for 60 years.

Lewis, an Alabama sharecropper’s son elected in 1986 as a Democrat from Georgia to the US House of Representatives, died on Friday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. 

As a young man, Lewis became a protege of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr and was the youngest of the so-called Big Six activists who organised the 1963 March on Washington where King gave his iconic I Have A Dream speech.

Only 18 years old when he first met King, Lewis cut his teeth as a young activist organising sit-ins to integrate lunch counters where Black people were prohibited from sitting. He also was one of the original “Freedom Riders” who helped integrate segregated buses.

In Selma, Alabama in 1965, Lewis suffered a skull fracture during a march for Black voting rights after a savage beating by a nightstick-wielding white state trooper in an incident now remembered as “Bloody Sunday”.

Searing TV images of that brutality helped galvanise national opposition to racial oppression and embolden leaders in Washington to pass the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act five months later, which removed some voting barriers for Black Americans.

“The American public had already seen so much of this sort of thing, countless images of beatings and dogs and cursing and hoses,” Lewis wrote in his memoirs. “But something about that day in Selma touched a nerve deeper than anything that had come before.”

Early civil rights activism

As a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Lewis dove into the civil rights movement, organising the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.

“The Nashville sit-ins became the first mass arrest in the sit-in movement, and I was taken to jail,” Lewis said.

“I’ll tell you, I felt so liberated. I felt so free. I felt like I had crossed over. I think I said to myself, ‘What else can you do to me? You beat me. You harassed me. Now you have placed me under arrest. You put us in jail. What’s left? You can kill us?'”

Lewis went on to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which became a prominent civil rights group, and served as its president for three years.

He proved he was willing to risk his life for the cause of civil rights and non-violent protests on several occasions. 

In the US, the fight for equality still goes on

Beyond Selma, he was beaten by white mobs in South Carolina and Alabama during the 1961 anti-segregation bus tours called the Freedom Rides.

“I thought I was going to die a few times,” he said in a 2004 interview. “I thought I saw death, but nothing can make me question the philosophy of non-violence.”

For his activism, Barack Obama, the first Black US president, awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honour, in 2011.

“Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind – an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time, whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now,” Obama said when bestowing the award.

Move to Washington

After winning a place on the Atlanta City Council in 1981, his first political office, Lewis successfully ran for the US House in 1986. He was re-elected 16 times, most recently in 2018. Only once did he receive less than 70 percent of the vote.

Lewis earned bipartisan respect in Washington, where some called him the “conscience of Congress”, his humble manner often contrasting with the puffed chests on Capitol Hill.

However, as a liberal on the losing side of many issues, he lacked the influence he had summoned as a young activist, or would later find within the Democratic Party, as a steadfast voice for the poor and disenfranchised.

“John is an American hero who helped lead a movement and risked his life for our most fundamental rights; he bears scars that attest to his indefatigable spirit and persistence,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in December 2019 after Lewis announced his cancer diagnosis.

Lewis maintained his activist spirit while in office, continuing to fight for civil rights and issues he believed in, including immigrants’ rights and gun control, once recounting he had been arrested 40 times in the 1960s and five more as a congressman.

In 2016, he organised a 24-hour sit-in on the House floor to push for gun control legislation following a shooting that killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The rare protest virtually shut down the chamber.

In January 2017 he refused to attend Trump’s inauguration and said he did not view Trump as a “legitimate” president because of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to boost his candidacy.

Trump later drew bi-partisan criticism when he called Lewis “all talk” and “no action”.

Lewis made his last public appearance in June, as protests for racial justice swept the US and the world following the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota, after a white officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Using a cane, Lewis walked with Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser on Black Lives Matter Plaza, a section of a street by the White House that Bowser had renamed and commissioned a large yellow mural on.

Meanwhile, amid a national movement to abolish Confederate monuments and symbols, calls have grown to rename for Lewis the bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he was brutally beaten in 1965. It is currently named for Edmund Pettus, who fought in the Confederate Army and robbed African Americans of their right to vote after Reconstruction.

Lewis, whose wife Lillian died in 2012, is survived by their son.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies