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John Lewis’ Unique Legacy Remains Foundation For Civil Rights




America Grieves for John Lewis

America is still grieving after the loss of longtime U.S. Congressman John Lewis. He succumbed to cancer on July 17, 2020. But, John Lewis’ Unique Legacy Remains. Few Congress members have captured the imagination of America as Mr. Lewis has. Even fewer Congress members will leave a legacy that will endure for generations. Understanding the origins of Mr. Lewis’ passion for civil rights provides an understanding of his legacy.

Humble Beginnings Provide Inspiration for Change

John Robert Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, in Troy, Alabama. His parents were a family of sharecroppers. An early life of poverty, segregation, and political disenfranchisement inspired Mr. Lewis towards civil rights activism. Mr. Lewis attended Fisk University in 1961. He helped organize Freedom Rides. It was a movement that challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals throughout the South. Mr. Lewis coordinated the movement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC. Mr. Lewis’ efforts with the SNCC planted the seeds that were planted in his quest for civil rights. The Black Lives Matter movement echoes the injustices that Emmett Till endured as it did for George Floyd.

Civil Rights Movement Gains Momentum with a Historic Event

In 1963, Mr. Lewis was elected chairman of the SNCC. This was after Chuck McDew stepped down from the position. He was responsible for helping to coordinate the March on Washington event in August 1963, serving as the keynote speaker of the event. The March on Washington was highlighted the “I Have A Dream” speech delivered by iconic civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Lewis considered Dr. King a friend and mentor. This solidified the civil rights movement.

John Lewis’ Unique Legacy Remains Foundation

Mr. Lewis’ commitment to civil rights was unquestioned. He was arrested multiple times for his crusade against racist Jim Crow racist polices. Nevertheless, Mr. Lewis remained steadfast and undeterred in his commitment to the cause. However, that commitment was about to receive its most difficult test.

On March 7, 1965, Mr. Lewis was beaten by cops during an organized march from Selma, Alabama to the state’s capital city of Montgomery. That day was infamously named “Bloody Sunday,” as Mr. Lewis suffered a fractured skull during the ordeal. The physical violence Mr. Lewis endured would have broken the will of lesser humans. However, it only intensified Mr. Lewis’ resolve to continue his civil rights quest while getting into “good trouble.” John Lewis’ legacy remains as a reminder that we have to stand for what is right.

Mr. Lewis Crafts His Political Career

The 1970s and 1980s saw Mr. Lewis continue his civil rights advocacy. His efforts to register minority voters led him to become director of the VEP (Voter Education Project). Under Mr. Lewis’ direction, the VEP added nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls. That resulted in Mr. Lewis getting elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981, a position he held until he was elected to Congress in November 1986. Mr. Lewis served in Congress for almost 34 years, gaining reelection while going unopposed at times. 

His most crowning achievement was his advocacy for the Affordable Healthcare Act of 2010. This law provided an affordable healthcare option for Americans in need. It was a significant achievement for Mr. Lewis, and for the American people.

The Most Enduring Part of Mr. Lewis’ Legacy

Hundreds of well-wishers attended Mr. Lewis’ funeral in Atlanta. Those in attendance included former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Passion, bravery, and commitment are the main traits that solidify Mr. John Lewis’ unique legacy as a civil rights icon. However, the most enduring part of Mr. Lewis’ legacy was established before his rise to prominence.

In 1961, Mr. Lewis waited in a designated white-only waiting area at a Greyhound bus terminal in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He was attacked by a group of white men. One of those men was Elwin Wilson, an admitted Ku Klux Klan supporter. Mr. Lewis did not press charges against the men at that time. In later years, Wilson claimed to have a change of viewpoint. He denounced his racist views after President Barack Obama took office in 2008. In 2009, Wilson somehow arranged a meeting with Mr. Lewis to express his regret for his participation in beating Mr. Lewis decades earlier.

Mr. Lewis forgave Wilson for his transgressions, displaying a fortitude that few humans possess. Mr. Lewis was committed to non-violently pursuing civil rights. Forgiving someone for such a heinous act without pursuing consequences against them is downright impressive. Human nature demands our perpetrators receive some sort of consequences. As a result, Mr. Lewis forgave and formed a friendship with Wilson. Wilson died in 2013. Most of all, it is the ability to forgive someone in this capacity that makes him an American treasure.

Continuing the Lewis Legacy

Mr. Lewis is buried at South View Cemetery in Atlanta, survived by his wife Lillian and son John Miles Lewis. It is unclear if the younger Lewis will follow in his iconic father’s footsteps in the political arena. Furthermore, it would be nice if Mr. Lewis’ gravesite were turned into a national monument. Especially since the civil rights movement he created paved the way for the Black Lives Matter movement. Above all, every American striving for civil rights should take a moment to honor John Lewis, a true American icon.

©Gregory Bradshaw- All Rights Reserved

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