Rest In Power: Remembering Freedom Fighter Congressman John Lewis

pictured:Transition: A young John Lewis (left) marching at the Edmund Pettus bidge and right, as a long time congressman.

At the 1963 March on Washington, civil rights leaders asked John Lewis to tone his speech down

Before his death Friday, at the age of 80, Rep. John Lewis was the last living speaker at the march where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’  speech.

As the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis , then 23 years old,,drafted a fiery speech to present to the crowds gathered at the March on Washington. But the night before the storied march, the speech was mistakenly leaked to the press, and as word of its contents began to spread, Lewis was summoned to a meeting with the march’s leaders and urged to tone down certain elements. Out of respect for leaders like A. Philip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King, Lewis edited his harsh criticism of the Kennedy administration’s civil rights bill, which he’d originally called “too little and too late,” and changed his call for a march “through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did” to a march “with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.”

The crowd hung on his every word. Decades later, a New Yorker editor wrote: “Certainly King’s speech was the most eloquent that day. But the most ferocious was John Lewis’s.”

John Robert Lewis, the son of sharecroppers who survived a brutal beating by police during a landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, to become a towering figure of the civil rights movement and a longtime US congressman,  died after a six-month battle with cancer.  

Lewis made  his transition  on the same day as civil rights leader the Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, who was 95. 

Lewis, a Democrat who served as the US representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for more than three decades, was widely seen as a moral conscience of Congress because of his decades-long embodiment of nonviolent fight for civil rights. His passionate oratory was backed by a long record of action that included, by his count, more than 40 arrests while demonstrating against racial and social injustice.

A follower and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., he participated in lunch counter sit-ins, joined the Freedom Riders in challenging segregated buses and  was a keynote speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington.

Lewis has said King inspired his activism. Angered by the unfairness of the Jim Crow South, he launched what he called “good trouble” with organized protests and sit-ins. 

In the early 1960s, he was a Freedom Rider, challenging segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South and in the nation’s capital.

“We do not want our freedom gradual; we want to be free now,” he said at the time.

President Barak Obama and John Lewis

At age 25, Lewis helped lead a march for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where he and other marchers were met by heavily armed state and local police who attacked them with clubs, fracturing Lewis’ skull. Images from that “Bloody Sunday” shocked the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Despite the attack and other beatings, Lewis never lost his activist spirit, taking it from protests to politics. He was elected to the Atlanta city council in 1981, then to Congress six years later.

Once in Washington, he focused on fighting against poverty and helping younger generations by improving education and health care. He also co-wrote a series of graphic novels about the civil rights movement, which won him a National Book Award.

Born on a Troy, Alabama, cotton farm into a segregated America on February 21, 1940, Lewis lived to see an African American elected president, a moment he said he never thought would come despite his decades long fight for equality.

“It is the power in the way of peace, the way of love,” Lewis said decades later as a Congressman. “We must never, ever hate. The way of love is a better way.”

In 2011, after more than 50 years on the front lines of the civil rights movement, Lewis received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, placed round his neck by America’s first Black president.