"Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society."
— U.S. Rep. John Lewis, in his 2017 memoir, "Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America"
John Lewis, who died Friday at the age of 80, may be best known as the young Black man in a raincoat taking a skull-fracturing hit from a club-wielding state trooper on a peaceful march across Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama. But his legacy encompasses the entire South — and the nation.
Alabama is where Lewis was born. Attending college in Nashville, Tennessee, is where he found his passion, becoming a peaceful activist for civil rights. The 5th District in Atlanta, Georgia, is the community he represented for more than 30 years as a U.S. congressman. But all of America owes Lewis immense respect as an untiring and loving fighter for freedom.
Studying at Nashville's American Baptist College, he found his calling as a humble — even shy, as he termed it recently — nonviolent warrior for justice. First he worked as an organizer and integrator of segregated lunch counters in Nashville with a group called the Nashville Student Movement. Then he loaded and boarded buses for Freedom Rides throughout the South. By the time he was 25 and marching for voting rights on the Selma bridge, he had become chairman of a larger Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
That walk across the bridge with some 500 marchers — that skull-cracking moment — transformed the voting rights movement into a national cause when the protesters were stopped as they left Selma. A state trooper told them they were "an unlawful assembly" and ordered them to disperse. Disperse to where?
They then were attacked by about 150 troopers wielding police clubs and tear gas. Fifty-eight people were treated for injuries.
Two weeks later, after a federal judge ruled they had a constitutional right to march, the protesters set out again, this time 25,000 strong and under National Guard protection by the time the walk ended on March 25 in Montgomery. Later that summer, the Voting Rights Act became law.
Chattanooga's John Edwards III, owner of the Chattanooga News Chronicle, an Black-owned weekly newspaper, remembers John Lewis as a pillar of inspiration.
Edwards, then about 12, was the son of another early civil rights leader, John Edwards Jr., who would later become the long-time pastor of Chattanooga's Cosmopolitan Community Church. The elder Edwards allowed his son to accompany him to the lessons of nonviolent civil rights taught in Nashville by the Rev. James Lawson — and sometimes by Lewis and another activist, Diane Nash.
"I always sat on the front row, and I remember John Lewis and Diane Nash. ... Just watching those young kids, you knew history was about to be made."
It was in those meetings where students like Lewis, Nash and the Rev. C.T. Vivian — who preceded the elder Edwards as pastor here at Cosmopolitan Community Church — refined their protest approach before carrying "their mission" throughout the Jim Crow South and the nation.
(Coincidentally, Rev. Vivian, 95, also died Friday — within hours of Lewis' passing. President Barack Obama in 2011 awarded both Lewis and Vivian with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 and 2013, respectively.)
The younger Edwards eventually was allowed to join in some of the protests in Nashville, recalling that Lewis, "still a young college kid," and Nash "would give us our assignments. My group was assigned to a restaurant called Cross Keys. ... Even before you got outside there, people would throw rocks at us. But if you didn't have the discipline to not strike back, you had to leave the movement."
Lewis, Edwards said, wasn't very tall, and had a stutter — not the best speaker, but "someone you just wanted to listen to. ... He was an awesome leader."
A few years ago, Edwards attended an event where Lewis was the keynote speaker. At the end of the address, Edwards approached Lewis and began recalling the front-row lessons he learned as a 12-year-old and his Cross Key Restaurant assignment.
"He grabbed me and hugged me. I thought there was no one else [in the room] who could share that with him at that time. That's something I will treasure forever."
Any memory of John Lewis is a memory America should treasure forever.
Vivian left Chattanooga to become Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference national director of affiliates and stayed with the SCLC for years, even serving in 2012 as its interim president.
The late John Edwards Jr., at Vivian's suggestion, took over the flock at Cosmopolitan Community Church and helped lead the desegregation of Chattanooga public housing, Erlanger hospital, Hamilton County Nursing Home and other medical centers. He also founded the Mary Walker Historical and Educational Foundation, which supports reading and literacy programs. The younger Edwards maintains it.
Lewis and his colleagues changed the face of activism in America, embracing nonviolent civil disobedience that became the bedrock of the modern fight for racial equality.
Even though ill, Lewis last month offered hope and inspiration to today's activists with a visit to the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington and with this June 2018 tweet:
"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."
It's a good message.