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John Lewis: A colossus of the civil rights era

By the time he was six, John Lewis had seen only two white people. However, it wasn't long before he recognised the racism and segregation that he and his family, sharecroppers in rural Alabama, would experience on trips to his local town.

Aged 15, he first heard Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio, and he subsequently wrote to King about being denied a place at Troy University. He then met with King to discuss suing for discrimination, but the risk of danger to his family was too great. Instead he decided to attend the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, and then Fisk University.  

While a student, Lewis was extremely active in the Civil Rights Movement, organising sit-ins at segregated cafes in Nashville, part of an active wider campaign to desegregate the city’s downtown, for which he was jailed many times. He also organised bus boycotts and other nonviolent protests to support racial equality and voting rights. It was around this time that Lewis started to speak about the importance of "good trouble, necessary trouble", an idea that he stuck to in a lifetime of embracing a philosophy of nonviolence.

Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, seven Blacks and six whites who pledged to take an integrated ride from Washington D.C. to New Orleans. The Freedom Riders were seminal in exposing the passivity of the Kennedy government towards the cause of civil rights in the South, and to the violence that those fighting for equality were exposed to. 

In 1963, Lewis took over as chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), opening Freedom Schools, launching the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and organising voter registration in the 1965 Selma campaign. During this time, his prepared speeches were often “toned down”, removing overt criticism of the Kennedy administration. 

Lewis became one of the “Big Six” leaders who organised the March On Washington, and the youngest speaker of the day, addressing the crown ahead of Dr King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech. 

1964 saw Lewis coordinating the SNCC’s efforts for Freedom Summer, campaigning to register Black voters across the South and introduce college students from across the country to the realities of African-American life in the South. 

He became nationally known for his part in the Selma to Montgomery marches, in particular leading over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where they were met by Alabama State Troopers who charged, mounted, when the marchers paused to pray. Lewis suffered a fractured skull, scars he bore for life.

Lewis continued to be politically active. From 1986 until his death this July, Lewis represented Georgia’s 5th congressional district. He was known to be one of the most liberal members of the House and became known as “the conscience of Congress”. His involvement in the Civil Rights Movement became built into his politics, including an annual pilgrimage to Alabama to retrace the route from Selma to Montgomery.

In 1988, the year after he was sworn into Congress, Lewis introduced a bill to create a national African American museum in Washington. For 15 years it was blocked in the Senate, but in 2003 the bill won bipartisan support. The National Museum of African American History and Culture was opened opposite the Washington Memorial in Washington D.C. in 2016.  

When Barack Obama was elected as President in 2008, Lewis said: 

“If you ask me whether the election ... is the fulfilment of Dr King's dream, I say, 'No, it's just a down payment.' There's still too many people 50 years later, there's still too many people that are being left out and left behind.”

When Lewis asked Obama to sign a commemorative photograph of his swearing-in ceremony, Obama wrote: "Because of you, John. Barack Obama”.

Lewis wrote an op-ed to be published in The New York Times on the day of his funeral, titled ‘Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation’, which called on young people to continue the work for justice and an end to hate.