Our nation grieves the loss of a genuine hero today. Last night, John Lewis, a titan of the civil rights movement, passed away from pancreatic liver cancer at the age of eighty.
What I loved about him was his genuine dedication to living his values and his willingness to put his own life on the line for his insistence on freedom and justice for people of color. The son of Alabama sharecroppers and the great-grandson of slaves, Lewis became deeply involved in the civil rights movement as a young college student in the 1960s. One of the original 13 Freedom Riders, he was beaten by angry mobs, arrested, and taken to jail repeatedly. A disciple of Dr. King’s and a strong believer in the power of nonviolence, he chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963-66. He helped organize the 1963 March on Washington where at just 23 years of age, he was the youngest speaker. And in 1965, in what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were viciously beaten by Alabama state troopers and Lewis’s skull was fractured.
Many 1960s activists abandoned activism in adulthood and focused on other pursuits. Lewis never did, and from 1987 on, he served in Congress as a representative from Georgia’s fifth district where he continued to fight for racial justice and other causes he strongly believed in, including advocacy for gay rights, national health insurance, and gun violence legislation. Known as “the conscience of Congress,” as recently as 2016 when he was a mere 76 years old, he and Massachusetts representative Katherine Clark led a sit-in in Congress that lasted for 26 hours to demand that then House Speaker Paul Ryan allow a vote on gun safety legislation.
Despite many setbacks, Lewis never lost his optimism and faith that we could one day achieve “the beloved community.” I am grateful that he lived long enough to see and participate in the massive protests following George Floyd’s murder and the resurgence of civil rights activism. He commented on how excited he was to witness the huge numbers and diversity of protesters around the nation and the globe.
Speaking personally, as a young person growing up in the 1960s, I was deeply inspired by the civil rights movement and the courage of activists like Dr. King, John Lewis, and so many others. They informed my most deeply held convictions and changed the shape of my own life. They remain my heroes.
I’ll close with three of my favorite quotes from John Lewis:
From his 1963 speech in the March on Washington:
“I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.”
From a June 2018 tweet:
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
And he really, really wanted all of us to vote! In a 2012 speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, he said:
“My dear friends: Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.”
Rest in peace, John Lewis. You will never be forgotten. May your vision of the beloved community be fully realized.