Rep. John Robert Lewis died on July 17, ending a six-decade, nonviolent campaign against racial discrimination in his native land. Growing up poor in rural Alabama, Lewis envisioned a career in the Christian ministry. He enrolled in the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, paying his way with campus jobs. He graduated in 1961. He subsequently earned a degree in philosophy and religion at Fisk University.
In 1960, Lewis engaged in sit-ins that eventually led to desegregation of Nashville restaurants. His protests led to the first of 45 arrests during his career. The last occurred in 2013.
One of the co-founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he became the organization's leader in 1963.
Protests for voting rights in Alabama led in February 1965 to the fatal shooting of a black male protester in Marion. This prompted the organization of a march by 600 adults and children across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Sunday, March 7.
State and local police blocked the south end of the bridge. When marchers refused to disperse, officers, some on horseback, attacked with tear gas and clubs. Lewis sustained a skull fracture, the first of many injuries sustained in peaceful protests. Twenty-seven marchers required hospitalization. The attack, which was dubbed "Bloody Sunday," was captured on nationally televised news.
Two days later, Martin Luther King Jr. led a second march of 2,000 black and white protesters across the bridge. When officers, who again blocked the bridge, ordered the marches to disperse, they knelt in prayer before retreating to Selma. Later that evening, one of the marchers, a white minister from Massachusetts, was fatally injured in an attack by a group of white men.
On March 15, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, calling for passage of legislation to ensure voting rights for all Americans. Following passage by the Senate in May and the House in July, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6.
On March 21, a federally sanctioned march crossed the Pettus bridge from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. National Guardsmen and FBI officers protected them. A recovering Lewis joined the march on its first day. Twenty-five thousand marchers took part in the march's concluding day.
Lewis was elected to Congress from Georgia's 5th District in 1986, a surprise winner over Julian Bond. He became known as "the conscience of the Congress."
In December 2019, Lewis announced that he had stage four pancreatic cancer.
In a June interview, he said, "You must be able and prepared to give until you cannot give anymore. We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it, and now the need is greater than ever before."
The life of Lewis points to a choice. We can elect to be active citizens or passive occupants of our nation. Active citizenship entails a commitment to the ideals set forth in our Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
John Lewis showed us that a life guided by the four cardinal virtues of courage, persistence, temperance and justice can translate these "rights" into reality for many people. Our opportunities for service may be more modest than his, but we can make a difference through advocacy and action on behalf of ending all forms of discrimination, broadening educational opportunities, reducing poverty and achieving universal access to health care.
Contact Clif Cleaveland at email@example.com.