Segregated lunch counters. Segregated buses and bus terminals. Obstacles to voting. Many people risked and gave their lives to topple these barriers, and one name that will always be prominent in those ranks will be an Alabama sharecropper’s son named John Lewis.
Lewis, a longtime member of Congress representing a district in metro Atlanta since 1987, died Friday of pancreatic cancer, and words of praise from at home and abroad have been flowing ever since.
“John often encouraged getting into a little ‘good trouble for a righteous cause’ and he pursued the cause of racial justice with love, and as a uniter, not a divider,” U.S. Sen. Doug Jones said in a statement released by his office. “He taught me that heroes walk among us, and that true heroes are those that bring us together. We lost a true American hero today.”
Lewis’ 80 years of life began up in rural Pike County, in a house with no plumbing or electricity, where he was the third of 10 children in the family of Eddie and Willie Mae Lewis. As a boy, he preached to chickens. As a teenager, he heard remarks from Martin Luther King Jr., followed the Montgomery bus boycott and later met both King and Rosa Parks, whose challenge of segregated seating on a Montgomery bus led to her arrest and the start of the boycott.
Inspired, he became an unflinching participant of sit-ins, boycotts, marches and civil rights demonstrations for much of his life. His operating philosophy could be summarized in his own words: “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.”
In his challenges to the Jim Crow status quo, Lewis was arrested multiple times and suffered physical violence on some of those occasions. While in Nashville, where he attended college, he was part of an effort to desegregate downtown lunch counters. As part of the Freedom Riders, an integrated group that challenged segregated buses and bus terminals in Alabama and elsewhere in the South, Lewis was beaten in Rock Hill, S.C., and in Montgomery, and later he spent nearly 40 days in Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm.
In recounting the mob attack on the bus that brought him and other Freedom Riders to Montgomery, Lewis told the following to Alabama native and former New York Times editor Howell Raines, who published it in his oral history of the civil rights movement, “My Soul is Rested:”
“I remember saying that we shouldn’t run, we should just stand there. ’cause the mob was beating people. And the last thing that I recall, I was hit with a crate, a wooden crate what you have soda in, and was left lying in the street. And I remember that the Attorney General of Alabama … served this injunction … saying that it was unlawful for interracial groups to travel. While I was lying there on the ground, he brought this injunction.”
As chairman of one of the major civil rights action groups, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was passionate in his advocacy. When he spoke at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, a day made memorable by Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech, Lewis’ remarks had been toned down because the original version had troubled the Kennedy Administration and some of the older civil rights leaders.
Even when toned down, Lewis’ speech reflected a simmering anger and impatience:
“To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we have long said that we cannot be patient,” Lewis said. “We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.”
When voting rights demonstrations were roiling the Black Belt city of Selma, Lewis was there, and he was most famously there on March 7, 1965, when he and a group of marchers were attacked by state troopers and mounted officers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River.
A trooper’s billyclub cracked Lewis’ skull, and film footage of “Bloody Sunday” shocked the country and led to the subsequent Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That act dramatically boosted the numbers of blacks on voting rolls and the number of black elected officials. Many of those officials would join Lewis and others to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on subsequent Bloody Sunday anniversaries. In the spring of 1985, Lewis was one of those who led a 20th anniversary re-enactment of the Selma to Montgomery march. When the march concluded on the steps of the Alabama state capitol, he made a point of shaking hands with the state troopers who had helped provide security.
Twenty-three years later, when the country elected its first African-American president, Lewis told an interviewer that Barack Obama’s victory showed “that the struggle, the suffering, the pain and everything we tried to do to create a more perfect union was worth it.” On Feb. 15, 2011, Obama gave Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying, “Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind.”
Upon hearing of Lewis’ death, Obama said, “When I was elected president of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made.”
The years that followed Lewis’ Medal of Freedom day did not always boost his spirits. In 2013, in a case challenging parts of the act that came out of Shelby County, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “the government was using an outdated and unconstitutional process to determine which states were required to have their voting rules approved by the government,” according to the news site Vox.
Lewis harshly criticized the ruling and later said it had led to efforts in states around the country to make voting more difficult.
“Those justices were never beaten or jailed for trying to register to vote,” he wrote in The Washington Post. “They have no friends who gave their lives for the right to vote. I want to say to them, Come and walk in my shoes.”
Jones and others who praised Lewis have called for honoring his memory by reinvigorating the Voting Rights Act. U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, said Lewis “forever changed Selma and this nation. May we finish his life’s work and restore the Voting Rights Act.”
Calling Lewis “a proud son of Alabama, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey ordered that flags be flown at half-staff until sunset. Lewis, Ivey said, “dedicated his life to serving his community and advocating for others during some of the most difficult times in our nation’s history.”
From Washington, President Donald Trump ordered that the American flag be flown at half-staff at the White House and other public buildings “as a mark of respect for (Lewis’) memory and longstanding public service.”
Lewis and Trump had not been on the best of terms. Lewis viewed Trump as a racist because of his reported remarks about people coming to the United States from “shithole countries” and his tweeting that four Democratic congresswomen of color should go back to “the totally broken and crime infested places” where they had come from. He also had refused to attend Trump’s inauguration because he viewed him as an illegitimately elected president due to Russian interference in the 2016 election. In response to Lewis’ remarks on the election, Trump had said Lewis’ congressional district was “crime infested” and “falling apart.”
But that animosity was not on display Saturday. While returning from a golf outing, Trump tweeted, “Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing,” adding that, “Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family.” Presidential press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called Lewis “an icon of the civil rights movement” and said he “leaves an enduring legacy that will never be forgotten.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who served with Lewis in Congress, said “While John Lewis will be rightly remembered as an icon of the civil rights movement, for me he was also a colleague and a friend. Even when we differed, John was always unfailingly kind and my family and I will never forget the privilege of crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge at his side on the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, said Lewis “absorbed the force of human nature’s cruelty during the course of his life, and the only thing that could finally stop him was cancer. But he was not bitter.”
Former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter also weighed in with comments on Lewis’ life and legacy.
“As a young man marching for equality in Selma, Alabama, John answered brutal violence with courageous hope,” said Bush, who walked across the Pettus bridge with Obama and Lewis in 2015. “And throughout his career as a civil rights leader and public servant, he worked to make our country a more perfect union. America can best honor John’s memory by continuing his journey toward liberty and justice for all.”
In their statement, Clinton and his wife, Hillary, said Lewis was always ‘walking with the wind,’ steered by a moral compass that told him when to make good trouble and when to heal troubled waters … We’ll miss him so much, but we’ll always be grateful to God for his long good life, and grateful that he lived to see a new generation of Americans take to the streets in search of his long sought ‘beloved community.'”
“John never shied away from what he called ‘good trouble’ to lead our nation on the path toward human and civil rights,” Carter said. Everything he did, he did in a spirit of love. All Americans, regardless of race or religion, owe John Lewis a debt of gratitude.”