By ROBYN H. JIMENEZ
The Dallas Examiner
“I want to see young people in America feel the spirit of the 1960s and find a way to get in the way. To find a way to get in trouble – good trouble, necessary trouble.”
– Congressman John R. Lewis
Often called the “Conscious of Congress,” Congressman John Robert Lewis was noted as “one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced.”
Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940, in a rural area just outside of Troy, Alabama. He was born and raised in the segregated South during the Jim Crow era. Having witnessed the many atrocities of discrimination and injustice that African Americans endured, he was determined to do what he could to fight for equality and justice.
His first fight for justice began at age 4, when his father bought 110 acres of land and began raising chickens. Lewis recalled during an episode of Masterclass, Remembering John Lewis that he loved raising chicken and considered them to be his friends. He hated when one of them was killed and served for dinner, so he would boycott the meal.
He also recalled wanting to be a minister during his early years. He, along with his siblings and cousins would gather the chickens to help make up the congregation and Lewis would preach to them.
“I wanted to save the souls of some of these chickens. And I would tell them, be good, be kind, not to fight,” he explained. “And some of these chickens would bow their heads. Some of these chickens would shake their heads. They never quite said, ‘Amen,’ but the tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me in Congress.”
Inspired to be the change
Attending a segregated school bothered Lewis because he noticed that the Black children went to school in old, rickety buses. The Black children had old, worn books and supplies. And their schools were old shacks with limited staffing. Meanwhile, the White children had new books and supplies. They went to school in a well-structured building that was well staffed.
“When growing up, I saw segregation. I saw racial discrimination,” he said during another televised interview. “I saw those signs that said, ‘White Men,’ ‘Colored Men,’ ‘White Women,’ ‘Colored Women.’ ‘White waiting,’ and I didn’t like it.”
At ages 15, he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on the radio. He said King’s message inspired him and gave him hope as he kept up with events that were taking place around the country. He followed events such as the Supreme Court’s Separate but Equal ruling in 1954, Rosa Park’s arrest in 1965 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that followed in 1956.
He dreamed of riding a better bus and going to a better school with better supplies. He was concerned about the fact that his parents and other Black adults didn’t have the same rights as White adults. But his mother insisted that he accept things as they were.
“My parents told me in the very beginning as a young child when I raised the question about segregation and racial discrimination, they told me not to get in the way, not to get in trouble, not to make any noise,” he reflected.
His mother warned him to stay out of trouble. But, Lewis said in the film, he was “inspired to get in trouble – good trouble.”
“Good trouble is simple; when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just you have a moral obligation, you have a mission, you have a mandate to speak up, to speak out,” he emphasized. “You may get arrested and taken to jail. You may be beaten and left bloody. And you could be murdered. You could die. But its part of the price you have to pay – not just to liberate yourself but to free and liberate others.”
In his quest for justice, Lewis led his troops on their first mission.
“I was so inspired by Dr. King that in 1956, with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins – I was only 16 years old – we went down to the public library trying to check out some books,” he reflected during the interview. “And we were told by the librarian that the library was for Whites only and not for Colors. It was a public library.”
Nevertheless, that did not deter the young activist.
After graduating, he continued his education at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.
It wasn’t long before Lewis met King and his life changed in ways he never imagined.
“When I was 18, I met Dr. King and we became friends. Two years after that I became very involved in the Civil Rights Movement. I was in college at that time. As I got more and more involved. I saw politics as a means of bringing about change,” said in the book Redemption of a Dream: The Incredible Journey from Slavery to Presidency.
Getting into good trouble
While at Fisk, he met a young professor at the university named Jim Lawson, a Methodist minister with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Lawson led training sessions on resisting violence and participating in peaceful sit-ins and protests.
Lewis began organizing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters at restaurants throughout the city in 1960, according to his biography. Though they encountered hostile patrons and staff and were subjected to being spit on and acts of violence, they remained peaceful.
The students were informed that they could be arrested, so Lewis went to a used clothing store and bought a stylish suit. During the Masterpiece interview, he stated that he wanted to look “sharp” in case he was arrested. Over 80 student activists were arrested, according to local newspaper headlines. However, in a more current article, those who attacked them were never arrested.
He was arrested more than 40 times during his fight for justice and equality.
He joined the Freedom Rides in 1961 to help integrate the interstate buses of the segregated South, which his biography noted put his life – and the life of the other 12 Freedom Riders – at risk over and over by sitting in White-only bus seats. He was the first of the group to be attacked during the rides and sustained a head injury and was arrested in another incident, according to a Smithsonian Magazine report on the group.
In 1963, he helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was named chairman. The group helped organize student civil rights demonstrations.
At the age of 23, he was the youngest of six men known as the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, which organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, held Aug. 28, 1963. Close to 250,000 people joined the march through the streets of the capitol to bring attention to the injustices that African Americans endured at that time, according to a PBS report. Lewis was one of many speakers, however, King’s I Have a Dream speech highlighted the event.
In 1963, he led the SNCC in organizing voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, according to his bio.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis and Civil Rights Leader Hosea Williams led over 600 activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. On that day, known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers attacked the marchers who dared and tried to bring their demonstration across the bridge to Montgomery, as the newspapers recorded, and radio and TV new stations broadcasted the assault. Undeterred, the group called in King to help them regroup, and inevitably successfully crossed the bridge with close to 25,000 marchers. The efforts helped to accelerate the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1967, Lewis graduated Fisk with a bachelor’s degree in degree in religion and philosophy, according to Fisk records.
In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council.
In 1986, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Representing the 5th Congressional District of Georgia, he served as the Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, and chairman of its subcommittee on Oversight.
Lewis continued to fight for human rights, writing and co-sponsoring 8,556 bills on behalf of his constituents and underserved communities across the country. The Civil Liberties Act of 1987 was his first sponsored bill that was written into law.
In May of 1990, the Fisk presented him with an honorary degree in law for his continued efforts.
The fight of his life
On Dec. 29, 2019, Lewis announced that he had begun the fight of his life. Following a report from his office about his recent diagnosis and treatment for pancreatic cancer, he released a statement his prognosis and his plans to continue to serve the people of his district and the people of the country.
“I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life,” he reflected. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now. This month in a routine medical visit, and subsequent tests, doctors discovered Stage IV pancreatic cancer. This diagnosis has been reconfirmed.”
Lewis went on to say that he was clear on fact about his diagnosis, however his doctors informed him of treatment options that were more effective and less debilitating than those in the past.
“So, I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the beloved community,” he announced. “We still have many bridges to cross.”
Lewis indicated that this fight was not just for himself and his family, but also for his constituents. He went on to say that the fight for justice and equality was not yet over and he planned to be a part of it that “good” fight.
“To my constituents: being your representative in Congress is the honor of a lifetime,” he stated. “I will return to Washington in coming days to continue our work and begin my treatment plan, which will occur over the next several weeks. I may miss a few votes during this period, but with God’s grace I will be back on the front lines soon.
“Please keep me in your prayers as I begin this journey.”
The last mile
During the week of July 6, the congressman introduced three pieces of legislation to help the country combat COVID-19:
- H.R. 7546, the Minority Community Public Health Emergency Response Act, would help small governments and county health departments quickly prepare for future COVID-19 outbreaks.
- H.R. 7543, the HIV Epidemic Loan-Repayment Program Act – known as the HELP Act, would help address the shortage of uniquely qualified health care professionals needed to provide care for America’s growing population of people living with HIV.
- H.R. 7544, the Missed Opportunities in Public Health and Biomedical Research Act, would highlight worthy National Institutes of Health grant proposals that were denied federal funding.
Lewis was passionate about continuing to fight on behalf of the next generation. On July 10, Lewis wrote acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf opposing the recent changes to the Student Exchange and Visitor Program.
“Amid unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, this policy unnecessarily creates uncertainty and mayhem as colleges and universities rush to reorganize curricula and campus life in order to protect the safety of students and faculty,” he insisted.
On July 11, he announced his plans to introduce into legislation the Fostering Healthy Transition to Adulthood Act, to provide critical support to youth that age out of foster care. Lewis stated that the bill was near and dear to his heart.
“Many years ago, I heard the testimony of foster youth from Metro Atlanta, and I pledged to take action,” he said in a prepared statement. “This bill does just that.”
On Friday, he and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, led an effort to champion public education for students across America. Together, with a bipartisan group of congress members, they composed and sent a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in support of two Centers for Civic Education grant applications for Supporting Effective Educator Development Program funding. The national grants of $25.9 million over three years would expand the center’s professional development program for K-12 teachers in civics and government lessons.
This would be his last effort on behalf the people. He died later that day.
“More than any lesson I’ve ever learned, you have to be consistent,” he once said. “And not just consistent, but insistent … hang in there.”