Over the weekend, America lost a booming voice in the civil rights movement. Longtime Congressman John Lewis, a pillar in the civil rights movement, sadly passed away at the age of 80 after a battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. We at Decision Desk HQ send our deepest condolences to the Congressman’s family, friends, constituents, colleagues and staffers during this incredibly difficult time. To honor the Congressman, I would like to reflect on his life and legacy.
“The Boy from Troy”
The third of ten children, John Robert Lewis was born on February 21, 1940 to sharecroppers near Troy, Alabama. He attended segregated public schools and was first made aware of southern segregation when he traveled to Buffalo, NY at the age of 11. There, he saw Black children and white children going to school and playing in parks together.
As a teenager, Lewis was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was led by a local minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. The boycott began after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus to a white man. For over a year, Black people in Montgomery were beaten and harassed, just for walking instead of taking the bus. In an interview with NPR, Lewis said that he had the chance to meet Parks in 1957, when he was 17 years old. He said that first listened to Dr. King on the radio and that he reached out to him with a letter. When they first met, King asked him: “Are you the boy from Troy?” the 18-year-old Lewis responded by stating his full name.
In November 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses and other public transportation was against the law, and the boycott officially ended the following month after the city voted to desegregate buses. “I don’t know where our nation, where we were would be as a people if it hadn’t been for those nonviolent action in Montgomery 50 years ago,” Lewis later said of the boycott. He became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, a group of 7 white people and 6 Black people who wanted to travel across the south on an integrated bus, even as some southern states still allowed segregation on buses.
Lewis attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Tennessee and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University. He continued to be active in the civil rights movement, organizing and participating in sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters and joining the Nashville Student Movement. He was arrested many times during these protests.
The Big Six
After graduating from college, he continued his fight for civil rights and became the youngest member of “The Big Six,” the leaders of six civil rights organizations. They helped organize the March on Washington For Jobs & Freedom, a giant march in Washington, D.C. to advocate for economic and voting rights for all African-Americans. This was where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. At the age of 23, Lewis was the youngest speaker at the march. He represented the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). His speech was critical of the Kennedy administration’s civil rights bill: “In its present form, this bill will not protect the citizens of Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear of a police state. It will not protect the hundreds and thousands of people that have been arrested on trumped charges. What about the three young men, SNCC field secretaries in Americus, Georgia, who face the death penalty for engaging in peaceful protest?”
In the 1960s, Lewis helped lead a series of marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The first march was on March 7, 1965. Protesters sought to earn the right to vote and to end segregationist laws supported by local and state officials. People across the country watched in shock as state troopers turned fire hoses, teargas, attack dogs and nightsticks on peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Lewis himself suffered a fractured skull and lost consciousness. He thought that he was going to die that day. President Lyndon B. Johnson denounced the violent actions taken by police officers and proposed a Voting Rights bill to Congress. The bill, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting and elections, overwhelmingly passed both the House and the Senate and was signed into law in August 1965.
Entry into Politics
Lewis entered elective politics after he relocated to Georgia in the 1970s. In his first campaign he ran to represent Georgia’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives in a 1977 special election after the incumbent, Rep. Andrew Young (D), was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations by President Jimmy Carter. The 5th District includes most of the city of Atlanta and has a large Black population. Lewis polled second in the jungle primary with 29% of the vote. Atlanta City Councilman Wyche Fowler, who is white, finished in first with 40% of the vote. Because no candidate received more than 50% of the vote, the primary was forced to a runoff, where Fowler would defeat Lewis 62%-38%. After his unsuccessful campaign, he was offered a position in the Carter administration. Following Carter’s re-election defeat in 1980, Lewis ran for an At-Large seat on the Atlanta City Council and was elected in a landslide.
In 1986, the 5th Congressional District opened up once again after Fowler announced that he was running for the U.S. Senate. Lewis ran for the seat again and finished second in the Democratic primary with 35% of the vote. State Sen. Julian Bond was viewed as the frontrunner and finished first with 47% of the vote. The runoff campaign was very contentious, with accusations of drug use and corruption. Many Black officials supported Bond, while many Atlanta newspapers and the “white liberal establishment” supported Lewis. Councilman Lewis pulled off an upset against Bond, winning the runoff vote 52%-48%. Lewis may have owed his victory to his strong showing among white voters: “In a race that badly strained relations in Atlanta’s Black community, Mr. Lewis’s margin of victory appeared to come from his strong lead in white precincts on the city’s north side, the last to be tabulated tonight,” according to the New York Times. The 5th District was one of the most solidly Democratic districts in the nation, having only been represented by a Republican for six years in the 20th century. Lewis easily won the general election with 75% of the vote.
Lewis as a Congressman
Lewis, who was known as the “Conscience of Congress,” developed a liberal voting record and was characterized as being one of the most liberal members of Congress from the Deep South. He was strongly opposed to U.S. military intervention, opposing the 1991 Gulf war and the 2003 Iraq invasion. However, he did support the decision to send troops to Somalia in late 1992. Following his re-election that year, he earned a seat on the Ways & Means Committee. He strongly supported President Bill Clinton’s health care bill, though he opposed the 1994 crime bill. He initially cast a vote against it but later switched, saying “I don’t like voting against my president, against my party, against the leadership of the House.”
Though he earned a reputation as a liberal, he tried to find common ground with others. “I’m a bridge builder,” he once said. “I don’t want to compromise my belief in interracial democracy.” A perfect example of this was during the 2008 presidential campaign. Lewis’ endorsement was highly sought after by almost every Democratic presidential campaign. After much consideration, he endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in 2007, praising her as a “strong leader.” Following Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) victory in the Georgia primary, Lewis came under enormous pressure from within the party and from Black officials to switch his endorsement from Clinton to Obama. He did just that in February 2008, praising Obama’s campaign as a “spiritual movement.” He also said that the switch was one of the hardest decisions that he has ever had to make, noting that he was dealing with personal friends. Obama welcomed Lewis’ endorsement and he became one of his most outspoken and visible surrogates. The final night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver coincided with the 45th anniversary of the March on Washington. Lewis underscored the historic significance of Obama’s candidacy during his DNC speech: “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a distance to go. We’ve come a long way, but we must march again. On November 4, we must march in every state, in every city, in every village, in every hamlet; we must march to the ballot box. We must march like we have never marched before to elect the next president of the United States, Sen. Barack Obama.” Obama later awarded Lewis with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the presidential medal of freedom.
In Congress, Lewis continued to stir up what he called “Good Trouble.” After the narrow 2000 election, Lewis boycotted the inauguration of George W. Bush in January 2001, questioning the legitimacy of his victory following the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Bush v. Gore case. He and seven other Democratic lawmakers were arrested at an immigration protest in front of the U.S. Capitol. According to him, it was his 45th time being arrested. He organized a sit-in on the House floor to force a vote on gun safety legislation following the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL. In the 2016 presidential campaign, Lewis was once again an early supporter of Hillary Clinton. In an interview, he compared Republican frontrunner Donald Trump to segregationist George Wallace. In the days leading up to President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, he said in an interview that he did not view Trump as a legitimate President, saying that Russians played a role in helping him win the election. He announced that he would boycott the President-elect’s inauguration. Trump fired back at Lewis, saying in a tweet that he was “all talk, talk, talk – no action or results.” Several other members of the Congressional Black Caucus joined Lewis in announcing that they would boycott Trump’s inaugural festivities. In another unprecedented move, Lewis testified against the nomination of Jeff Sessions, President-elect Trump’s pick for Attorney General, raising concerns about Sessions’ views on race. “We need someone as Attorney General who is going to look out for all of us, and not just for some of us,” Lewis said in his testimony. He then boycotted the opening of a civil rights museum in Mississippi, calling President Trump’s attendance “an insult” to the African Americans recognized at the museum.
Lewis never shied away from him time in the civil rights movement. In early 2009, 48 years after the first Freedom Ride, Lewis received an apology from a white segregationist who attacked him during the protests. Elwin Wilson offered an apology to Lewis in the halls of the U.S. Capitol, to which Lewis responded: “It’s okay.” The apology was then followed by a hug, which was televised nationwide. He opened up about his emotional reaction to the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, and he suggested that he didn’t believe that President Trump would have been elected if his friend Dr. King were still alive.
In late 2018, he shocked the entire country with his announcement that he was suffering from stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He received an outpouring of love and well-wishes following his announcement and remained in high spirits. He gave what would be his final television interview on June 4, 2020 following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and in the wake of protests and marches across the country. “How many more young Black men will be murdered that the madness will stop,” he asked. He said that he was moved by the protests across the country. His final public appearance was on June 7, where he appeared alongside Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser on the new Black Lives Matter Plaza. He called the painting a “powerful work of art.”
Lewis was called home on July 17, 2020 at the age of 80. People from all different races and political ideologies paid their respects to the late civil rights icon, from former Presidents, to members of Congress and his constituents in Atlanta. A change.org petition asking to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge after John Lewis began circulating online following the news of his passing.
John Lewis was put on this earth to do amazing things. Even in our darkest times, Congressman Lewis knew that our brighter days were at the end of the tunnel. He was a man of faith, honor, strength and wisdom. He fought to make sure that every American could live in a fair and just society regardless of the color of their skin. If not for him, I probably would not have the right to vote. I had the amazing opportunity to visit his mural in Downtown Atlanta. There were mourners from the Atlanta area and from different states who traveled to the mural to pay their respects. People left flowers, signs, cards, pictures and notes under his mural. Some got and their knees and said prayers. He was a beloved leader in Atlanta, and I realized this weekend that his wisdom and sense of hope are needed now more than ever, especially during a time of anger and unrest.
We owe him a huge debt for his fight to bring this country together, and words alone are not enough to show our appreciation. If you believe that something is not right or not fair, raise awareness to the issue. Hold your elected officials accountable. Organize protests and marches. But most importantly: vote. Congressman Lewis always said that our vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool that we have in the Democratic process. He risked his freedom and his life to make sure that every American could have the right to vote, and exercising that right is a great way to thank him for all that he has done for our country. In closing, I will leave you all with this motivational quote from Congressman Lewis:
“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”
Niles Francis (@NilesGApol) is a contributor to Decision Desk HQ.