John Lewis – Civil Rights Icon: To Have Met Him Was to be More Inspired

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John Lewis joined the Freedom Riders who challenged segregated facilities such as bus terminals which the Supreme Court had deemed illegal. He was arrested more than 40 times and severely beaten numerous times. Here Lewis (center) chats with conference attendees, including the writer (left) at the 2013 AFT TEACH Conference in Washington DC. (Photo credit: Chaitram Aklu)

By Chaitram Aklu

John Lewis the US Congressman from Georgia and Civil Rights icon, who like Martin Luther King Jr., adopted the philosophy of truth and non-violence and paid a steep price with his body and blood, died July 17, after losing his last fight to pancreatic cancer. He was 80.

John Robert Lewis, the son of share croppers from rural Alabama represented Georgia in Congress for 17 terms totaling 33 years and continued his struggle for civil rights until his passing. As late as last month, though terminally ill, he was out front doing his part in the nationwide protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. In a documentary titled JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE, which has just been released for stream, he said “One of my greatest fears is one day we wake up and our democracy is gone.”

Congressman John Lewis walked the walk. He entered the struggle in the 1950s and was arrested more than 40 times beginning in 1963 for civil rights activities in Selma Alabama, his birth state. He was an organizer for the March on Washington in 1963 and at 23 was the youngest of the ‘Big Six’ of the Civil Rights Movement to address the crowd of about 250 000 at the Lincoln Memorial. He was the last living speaker at the march which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Lewis was a special guest in July of 2013, at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) TEACH Conference in Washington DC. During his speech e recounted an incident in which he was severely beaten and bloodied by white men whom he did not know. Years later, as Congressman, he was approached by the son of one of the men who told him that his father who was tormented would like to meet him to apologize for what he had done to Lewis. Lewis agreed and the meeting was arranged at which time the man began to cry and begged for forgiveness. Lewis said he also cried and told the man he accepted his apology and forgave him. During an informal conversation Lewis told a few of us, as he mingled with the audience after his presentation, that he had no choice but to forgive the man because the man was tormented for years by his actions. “King taught us the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. — to have the power to forgive, the capacity to be reconciled,” Lewis once said.

This incident brought out the true measure of the man as a non-violent compassionate leader in spirit of MLK. During a meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Council in September 1962, in Birmingham Alabama, a man, who was later identified as a member of the American Nazi Party, jumped on the stage and punched King real hard more than once. King just stood there with his hands to his sides, author Taylor Branch recalled in an interview with Ron Rosenbaum for the Smithsonian Magazine. When King’s people realized it was no act and tried to stop the man, King told them: “Do not touch him! Don’t touch him. We have to pray for him.”

On the 50th anniversary March on Washington on August 28, 2013, he told the marchers, “Sometime I hear people saying nothing has changed, but for someone to grow up the way I grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress makes me want to tell them come and walk in my shoes. Come walk in the shoes of those who were attacked by police dogs, fire hoses and nightsticks, arrested and taken to jail.” Former President Obama in his tribute to Lewis, reminded listeners of the March 1965 attack on Lewis: “As Lewis led protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Alabama state troopers beat the future congressman so badly they cracked his skull and doctors later had to insert a steel plate into Lewis’s head which he carried to his grave.” Still he remained unshaken in the belief that, “There’s something cleansing, something wholesome, about being peaceful and orderly.” Lewis has led a march over that bridge every year since.

Lewis has received numerous awards and recognition over the decades including the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001, The Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 and the National Book Award in 2016, where he recalled being turned away from the library in 1956 when he was 16 years old, after being told that the library was not for coloreds. It made him more determined to get a good education.

Lewis continued to give to this country until he could no longer give. But there is still more to be done. We have to find a way to do it as he said, “We are one people with one family. We all live in the same house… and through books, through information; we must find a way to say to people that we must lay down the burden of hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”

To have met him was to be more inspired.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.

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