8 Things To Know About The Life And Legacy Of Late Civil Rights Legend And Congressman John Lewis
Lewis was a walking embodiment of a sustained protest.
July 18, 2020 at 4:41 pm
John Lewis served in various capacities before dying at the age of 80 on Friday.
The Alabama played a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement as a young man and continued to be a champion for social justice throughout his life. He survived a brutal police beating and harassment and served as a congressman for more than 30 years.
Here are eight things to know about the civil rights leader:
The Alabama Boy Wanted To Save The Souls Of Birds And Be A Preacher
Lewis, who wanted to be a preacher when he was young, practiced his sermon on the family's chickens in Troy, Alabama. According to Politico, the son of Eddie and Willie Mae Lewis described his childhood ambitions in his autobiography, March.
"I preached to my chickens just about every night,” Lewis wrote.
The aspiring preacher baptized the chickens when they were born and arranged funerals for them when they died, The New York Times reported.
“I was truly intent on saving the little birds’ souls,” he wrote in his memoir, Walking With the Wind. “I could imagine that they were my congregation. And me, I was a preacher.”
The boy, who was known as "preacher" in the family, listened to the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio. Lewis continued to follow his dreams when he attended American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville.
Lewis Got Involved With Activism In Nashville
The Alabama native made his mark on the Civil Rights Movement while he was attending school in Nashville. That's where he met many civil rights activists and took part in lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom Rides and voter registration efforts.
Lewis, who was detained at least 45 times in his lifetime, was first arrested while sitting in at a whites-only lunch counter in Nashville in 1960. David Halberstam, who was a reporter for The Nashville Tennessean, said Lewis and his group had conducted the protests with "exceptional dignity."
"One image had come to prevail — that of elegant, courteous young Black people, holding to their Gandhian principles, seeking the most elemental of rights, while being assaulted by young white hoodlums who beat them up and on occasion extinguished cigarettes on their bodies,” Halberstam wrote.
The protesters' efforts paid off when Nashville became the first major Southern city to desegregate public establishments, The Times reported.
The Freedom Rider Stayed Motivated After He Was Beaten
After graduating from the the seminary in 1961, Lewis joined the Freedom Riders and experienced a brutal attack. The beating, which was one of many he survived during his lifetime, happened when Lewis and others tried to use a whites-only waiting room at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
The civil rights icon wrote about the bloody scene in his memoir.
“If there was anything I learned on that long, bloody bus trip of 1961, it was this — that we were in for a long, bloody fight here in the American South," he wrote. "And I intended to stay in the middle of it.”
Lewis Served As Chairman Of SNCC For Three Years
The human rights champion became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963. He held the position for three years while being paid $10 a week, The Washington Post reported.
With the organization also suffering from internal conflict for many years, the people who held the position never stayed for long. Lewis was ousted in 1966 when Stokely Carmichael took over and coined the phrase "Black Power."
Carmichael, who preached Black nationalism, was critical of the former chairman, The Post reported.
Thirty years after he was ousted, Lewis said he was still hurt by the loss of his seat.
"It hurt me more than anything I’ve ever been through,” the former chairman said.
The Young Activist Delivered His Speech Alongside Dr. King
While Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, 23-year-old Lewis also delivered a message in front of the crowd.
“If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. … We must say, ‘Wake up, America, wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not be patient,” he said.
According to The Post, King and some of the other leaders convinced Lewis to tone down his speech after he had prepared a more stern message. Lewis' mentors were afraid of the political backlash that could follow if the young activist explicitly condemned the Kennedy administration.
He Endured Another Brutal Beating In Selma
In a historic event known as Bloody Sunday, Lewis almost lost his life. The civil rights leader was marching with 600 people who were fighting for the right to vote. But police stood in the way as the group marched across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
The scene, which was caught on TV cameras, showed state troopers charging at the protesters after they refused to turn back. Hundreds of Black men, women and children were injured and killed on that day in 1965. Lewis ended up with a fractured skull.
“I remember how vivid the sounds were as the troopers rushed toward us,” he wrote in his memoir. “The clunk of the troopers’ heavy boots, the whoops of rebel yells from the white onlookers, the clip-clop of horses’ hoofs hitting the hard asphalt, the voice of a woman shouting, ‘Get ’em!’ ”
President Lyndon B. Johnson gave in to the pressure and signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Lewis Continued To Stand Strong As Congressman
The social justice icon was unsuccessful in running for a U.S. House seat in Georgia when he first tried in 1977, according to Politico. In 1986, he succeeded in his congressional run and remained in the U.S. House of Representatives until his passing.
One of his legacies as a congressman is the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., which opened in 2016 after Lewis repeatedly advocated for the project. The congressman was also passionate about supporting the Affordable Care Act and gun safety legislation.
As he had done in his youth, Lewis continued to pay the price for standing up for injustice. In 2013, the human rights advocate and other members of Congress were detained at an immigration rally, PBS reported.
The Congressman Has Received Countless Honors
Lewis has received dozens of honors through the years. Some of the awards he won include a Lincoln Medal from Ford’s Theatre, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center and a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for lifetime achievement. The iconic champion was also portrayed in the 2014 movie, Selma.
In 2011, former President Barack Obama honored the congressman with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"Through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example," the former president wrote in a tribute on Medium.