John Lewis: The Iconic Civil Rights Leader Dies

john lewis

FILE – In this Feb. 15, 2011, file photo, President Barack Obama presents a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Lewis, who carried the struggle against racial discrimination from Southern battlegrounds of the 1960s to the halls of Congress, died Friday, July 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)


This is a sad day for America. John Lewis, US Congressman and key leader of civil rights movement died in Atlanta, Georgia, last night. He was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in 2019. Lewis was 80 years old. “Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history: Congressman John Lewis, the Conscience of the Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said late Friday.” The lasting image of John Lewis that is embedded in my memory: March 7, 2015, when John Lewis went to Selma, Alabama with President and Mrs. Barack Obama to observe the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” March which changed American history. On that historic day thousands had gathered on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to listen to President Obama and Congressman John Lewis. It was the same bridge where John Lewis stood with Martin Luther King, Jr. five decades ago. Before starting his speech, Obama introduced Lewis as one of his heroes. As an acknowledgement to his struggle for racial justice, and for his non-violence approach during the civil rights movement, Obama had adorned him with the Medal of Freedom. This highest civilian honor was given to him on the eve of the Freedom Riders 50th anniversary. “Generations from now,” Obama said when awarding him a Medal of Freedom in 2011, “when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind — an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”

Congressman Lewis had earned the nickname the “old lion” because he carried himself with the “royal bearing of one.” John Lewis played a very important role during the civil rights movement – he became a symbol of non-violence about the way he fought for the basic rights of the African Americans that was promised to them when slavery was abolished. Lewis had worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the time of the civil rights movement. Under King’s direction Lewis and another activist named Hosea Williams led the mighty “Selma March” which procured voting rights for the African Americans.

During the March when hundreds of African Americans followed Lewis, the demonstrators and some of the activists were beaten with Billy clubs and bloodied by state troopers as they approached the bridge. Police released tear gas as the marchers crossed the county line. Undeterred, they continued on the 54-mile trek towards state capital Montgomery. They were set on their mission to demand for new legislation to be signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson so that they can exercise their right to vote. The marchers had decided to take their complaint directly to the Alabama governor George Wallace who was a segregationist. Prior to the march he had issued an order for all the white people to stay home and not to participate or show solidarity with the marchers. Thousands came out despite his warning and stood watch waving the confederate flag. Wallace refused to protect the marchers and instead dispatched state troopers to handle them.

Even before the Selma to Montgomery March, John Lewis’s momentous contribution to the civil rights movement is humongous and usually is highly revered by all Americans. Lewis, a son of a sharecropper, was a theology student in Alabama. At the time he was twenty-one years old. He was one of the original groups of 13 riders (seven black, six white) of the Freedom Riders who were fighting racial segregation in the Deep South. The activists rode a bus from Washington DC that headed south to test a Supreme Court decision. A year ago, in 1960, the SC invalidated the segregation of the interstate transportation, and the facilities at the bus and train terminals. The bus ride was supposed to prove whether the integration in the reluctant and heavily segregated South was actually implemented.

The bus riders took on the entire system built on hating their black skin. The riders knew it could end up badly. They risked everything to take a ride for freedom. They left on May 9, (Mother’s day), in an effort to end segregation in the United States. In Rock Hill, North Carolina, at the bus depot, Lewis and his white friend were badly beaten and bloodied. Elwin Wilson was one of the perpetrators who had attacked Lewis. Young Lewis was determined to reach his destination, and they continued on.

Later one of the Freedom Riders bus was first stoned, the students beaten, and was firebombed as it approached Anniston, Alabama. The passengers escaped only to face vicious mobs, the heinous members of the KKK and jail cells. There were a total of 436 people who were on different buses, which came from different strategic points across the country with the same goal. In their struggle against racism and injustice, they helped the US to change laws where everyone in this country can use the same public amenities while they are travelling.

In 2011, on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Ride Lewis had given many interviews and had recalled his experience. He stated, “Boarding that Greyhound bus to travel through the heart of the Deep South, I felt good. I felt happy. I felt liberated; I was like a soldier in a nonviolent army.” This movement was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent teachings and philosophy. What the Freedom Riders demonstrated in 1961 hastened the United States in taking a bigger step towards desegregation which ignited a nationwide movement for civil rights.

Lewis’s philosophy resonates with this quote: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Forgiveness in the Biblical sense perhaps is a hard thing to do. In May 2011, in the spirit of true forgiveness, John Lewis did just that. On national television, he publicly forgave his abuser, Elwin Wilson who beat him up at the bus depot in North Carolina. In 1961, Wilson, a member of Ku Klux Klan (KKK), beat the life out of Lewis, because of the color of his skin. When John Lewis got a chance to confront his abuser half a century later, he showed no desire to avenge the burning pain and perhaps rage he must have felt from time to time about the fateful day. In its place John Lewis showed humility, and his human capacity to forgive.

On TV, Lewis had held Wilson’s hand and told him, “Love is much stronger than hate,” and he forgives him. It was a true moment of reconciliation. It would have been perfectly justified if Lewis had refused to sit next to Wilson, let alone accept his apology, after the way he degraded him. By demonstrating a benevolent sympathy and by showing his ability to forgive a person who had done him wrong is a testament to courage, moral decency, and generosity of his spirit. In a candid conversation he let Wilson know that he understands what motivated him because they both were victims of segregation. In his own words why he forgave his abuser: “If we are to emerge unscarred by hate, we must learn to understand and forgive those who have been most hostile and violent towards us.”

The in-person apology on Wilson’s part did open up a “grand canopy of human togetherness” — out of hate grew tenderness.

Fifty years later, it showed that early on John Lewis made a decision to move on with his life, without being bitter and blinded by prejudice and hate. For his own sake he let go of his private pain which had helped him to validate his own worth as a human being. Since then he had dedicated much of his career to public service.

What about Elwin Wilson, the Ex-Klansman? What has his life been like since he horribly beat up Lewis? As a KKK recruit, he took an oath to hate all black people. It gave him no peace and he strived to make amends for what he had done. Throughout his life he had been sorrowful when he realized how inextricably he had been caught up in hate. His need for an apology grew day by day for the violence he had inflicted on Lewis, five decades ago. In 2009, he came to Congressman John Lewis’s Capitol Hill office in Washington DC, to offer him an apology that he has been carrying in his heart. He told Lewis that he thought about him a lot, and felt a longing to seek him out because “Hate is too heavy a burden to carry.”  The public apology came on May 4, of the same year.

For some of the Freedom Riders like John Lewis, living a life with the emotions and the experience of that appalling day in 1961, positioned them to be stronger forces and advocates against racism. A lot of them went on to become social workers, preachers, lawyers and public servants. Lewis’s work was still not done until his cancer diagnosis came. He was serving his fourteenth consecutive term in the Congress.

John Lewis felt the scars of racism were deeply rooted in the American consciousness. Though the country has come some distance in getting rid of xenophobia, but there is still a lot of hate that lingers. The recent police brutality across America has opened old wounds of racism and the demonstrations have sparked unrest.

Until recently, many African American youth did not feel much “emotional connection” to the civil rights movement for equality or about the struggles from what they read in social studies class. When I had taught Middle School, I saw that the school curriculums shelter the students from the shameful history of segregation. The students had no understanding of what their predecessors went through in the 60s, to force integration in the South. In January 2015, a film called Selma was released for the young generation of Americans to learn a pivotal lesson as to what had happened in Selma, Alabama.

Rep Lewis, one of the most courageous and towering figure of the civil rights movement had played many key roles including organizing the 1963 March on Washington. He dedicated his life to protecting human rights and also focused in advocating equality for all minorities, and had made immigration a new civil rights battle in the last decade.


Rep. John Lewis marches to the headquarters of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to protest the Trump administration’s family separation policies on June 13, 2018 in Washington, DC. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

John Lewis had tried hard to keep the movement of equal rights alive by sensitizing all the young American people about present day-racism. In a world of difference, he had urged them to take on a different kind of bus ride in fighting prejudice, and hate crimes. He advocated having respect for diversity.

What was most astounding about Congressman Lewis is his capability to reconcile with a life changing episode. He rose above the dreadful experience while riding the bus. His resilience showed that he saw a bigger need to educate and change the customs and the laws of the land. To resolve the issue of race and for the Americans to have an understanding of the dark past of division and separation bypassed his need for seething in anger.

As a Freedom Rider, the youngest of the Big Six civil rights activists, and a visionary, John Lewis had made it his life’s mission to take back Americans to the roots of the civil rights movement. He and the other riders braved unimaginable disgrace in their struggle against racism for the future generations to live a life of equality that was envisioned by Martin Luther King, Jr. If Lewis and others didn’t dare to take those buses for freedom, then perhaps there will still be segregation in America.

With John Lewis’s death, America has lost one of its most important voices. The latest police brutality in Minneapolis and Atlanta had resulted in the deaths of two black men, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. The global and Black Lives Matter protests reaffirm and reveal that white supremacy is a problem everywhere. America can’t act like a team and it is feuding and facing chaos because of pandemic, recession and unrest. Many unresolved race relations issues, and the division between black, white, and everyone in-between are more evident now than ever before in recent years. During these confusing times the Americans can take a moment and reflect on the courage that John Lewis and Elwin Wilson had demonstrated. They must remember that every human being has a voice, and he/she can be a champion for change. Without feuding, hating one another people everywhere should have a look at Lewis’ life and believe in the power of redemption. Everyone must work harder to resolve the race disputes to improve race relations. We must not forget how the reunion between Lewis and Wilson had restored one’s faith in the power of grace, humility and love. With the Freedom Riders, John Lewis stood up to the injustices and prejudices, in a peaceful, nonviolent, Gandhian way.

May John Lewis rest in peace!

Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA



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