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John Lewis (1940-2020), civil rights legend & U.S. Rep. from Georgia

by Linnea Crowther

John Lewis, the long-serving U.S. representative from Georgia who was one of the most prominent leaders of the American civil rights movement, died Friday, July 17, his family announced in a statement.

A great American life

Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, and he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966. Lewis was one of the primary organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the youngest speaker to address the March’s crowd. Two years later, he led the famous 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986, Lewis represented Georgia’s 5th District, encompassing much of Atlanta and some of its suburbs, for 17 terms.

“It is with inconsolable grief and enduring sadness that we announce the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis,” his family’s statement said. “He was honored and respected as the conscience of the US Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother. He was a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being.  He dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America.  He will be deeply missed.”

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The Selma march

Among Lewis’ most notable moments as a leader of the civil rights movement was the “Bloody Sunday” march across Edmund Pettus Bridge. Intended to be a march from Selma to the Alabama state capitol of Montgomery, the march was cut short when the marchers were met on the far side of the bridge by state troopers and a posse of civilians who had been hastily deputized by the County Sheriff in order to stop the marchers. Ordered to disperse, the marchers stood their ground and began to pray. The troopers and their posse attacked, first with tear gas and then with violence. Lewis was one of the marchers who was severely beaten, receiving a fractured skull and scars that would stay with him all his life. It wasn’t the first time Lewis had been injured in the pursuit of equal rights; as a Freedom Rider, he was beaten more than once by angry civilians who felt threatened by his peaceful attempt to integrate public transportation.

Career in Congress

Lewis was unique among the major leaders of the civil rights movement as the only one to go on to a career in national politics. He was one of the most liberal congressmen to represent a Deep South district, and over the course of 17 elections, he only once got less than 70 percent of the vote – when he received 69 percent in 1994. He was Senior Chief Deputy Whip and served on the Committee on Ways and Means. Among the successful legislation he sponsored was the bill establishing the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“March”

Beginning in 2013, Lewis cowrote the graphic novel series “March,” telling the story of the Civil Rights Movement through his own experiences. Written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, the series brought history to young readers. The “March” series was widely honored, including a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for “March: Book Three.” It was the first graphic novel to win a National Book Award, and Lewis was the first member of Congress to write a graphic novel.

Lewis’ encouraging words on justice

“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.” —@repjohnlewis on Twitter, 2018

Funeral details

Lewis was honored at Troy University in Troy, Alabama, on Saturday, July 25. His funeral procession crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge as it carried his coffin to Montgomery, where he lay in state at the Alabama capital. A second procession took place in Washington, DC on Monday, July 27, as Lewis’ body was taken to the U.S. Capitol where he again lay in state. Public viewings in Washington, DC are scheduled for Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning, with further public viewings at the Georgia capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday and Thursday. A private funeral will be held on Thursday at his home church, Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, with burial to follow at South View Cemetery.

Tributes and remembrances

Full obituary: Washington Post

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