John Robert Lewis was an American civil rights crusader and a statesman. Until his death on July 17, 2020, John Lewis served in the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia 5th congressional district. He is known for his political activities across the United States, including being the chairman of the “Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)” and leading several civil rights movements, including the “Bloody Sunday” of 1965.
Lewis was born February 21, 1940, of a sharecroppers parents, whom he needed to work extra hard to assist. John Lewis attended segregated schools as a teenager, and later obtained his B.A. in religion and philosophy, 1967) from Nashville at the American Baptist Theological Institute and Fisk University (Jeff Wallenfeldt 1). He chafed against the inequities of segregation and was incredibly dissatisfied by the Supreme Court ruling of 1954, as the case of Brown v. The Board of Education did not affect his school life as he expected. Lewis was inspired by the Orations of Martin Luther King Jr. and the bulletin of the Montgomery bus boycott 1955-1956, making him act for the human rights changes he wanted to see across the United States (Jeff Wallenfeldt 2).
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John Lewis Contribution to the Civil Rights Struggle
Lewis moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1957 to attend the American Baptist Theological Seminary, where he learned about peaceful/nonviolent protest, a concept used plan sit-ins at segregated lunch counters (Eskew, Glenn 2). Lewis was arrested during these protests, upsetting his parents. However, he remained committed to fighting for equality and was part of the organizers of the Freedom Rides of 1961. The movement confronted the segregated facilities they came across at the regional bus stations in the South, which the Supreme Court had declared illegal (Eskew, Glenn 3). The work was dangerous and resulted in many participants, including Lewis, being assaulted and even arrested during the demonstrations.
Lew Contribution in the Freedom Rides
John Lewis became among the thirteen original Freedom Riders, a group comprising of six whites and seven blacks dedicated to riding from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans as a team. Several states from the South enacted laws that banned whites and blacks from sitting next to each other in public transport. The Freedom Ride emerged as the “Fellowship of Reconciliation” and revitalized by James Farmer, a civil rights activist and “Congress of Racial Equality (CORE),” a civil right organization for the African-Americans (Lewis, John 14). The movement meant to pile pressure on the federal government to implement the decision by the Supreme Court in Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which prohibited the segregated interstate public transportation. Besides, the Freedom Rides movement uncovered the indifference towards violence against law-abiding citizens Americans. The federal government by then had tasked the infamously racist Alabama police to offer protection to the Riders, but the police did offer any help the marchers. Instead, the police allowed in the FIB agents to spy on the demonstrators. The government of Kennedy then called a cooling-off temperature, with a suspension on Freedom Rides (Lewis, John 22).
Lewis and fellow nonaggressive Freedom Riders were assaulted by mobs and arrested in the South as the age of 21 years. He became the first member of the Freedom Riders to be attacked at Rock Hill when he tried to force himself in a waiting room designated as whites-only. Two weeks later, he joined a Freedom Ride destined toJackson, Mississippi, and was imprisoned in Mississippi State Penitentiary for 40 days for participating Freedom Ride marches, but that did not stop him. “We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal. We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back” (Kara Furlong 1), Lewis recounted during the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.
John Lewis as the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
John Lewis was elected the chairman of the “Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee” in 1963. In the same year, 1963, as among “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights crusade, Lewis helped to organize the “March on Washington.” Being the youngest among the key speakers of the occasion, Lewis changed his speech to satisfy other senior organizers but still managed to deliver a ground-shaking speech that declared, “We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about” (Lewis, John). The Civil Rights Act became law in 1964, following the aftermath of the March on Washington. However, the law still did not provide equal rights for African Americans from the South to vote (Rodriguez and Weingast 1419). Lewis, together with Hosea Williams, organized another demonstration of about 600 people from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965, to raise the concern on why African Americans from the South have no equal rights to vote as the rest of the population (Herndon, Ashtead 2).
The demonstrators were, however, attacked by the state troopers at Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the majority of them, including Lewis, were severely beaten and injured. John Lewis suffered a fractured skull as a result. The pictures of the violent attacks were recorded and circulated across the United States. Some of the images were so painful to ignore, and such, the “Bloody Sunday,” as the day is called, hurried up the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed on August 6, 1965, by Lyndon B. Johnson, with Martin Luther King Jr. and several other leaders of the civil movement, including John Lewis being present at the ceremony (Herndon, Ashtead 3). The law aimed to overturn legal restrictions that denied African Americans the right to vote as postulated under the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution (Herndon, Ashtead 2). The Voting Rights Act is regarded as one of the essential facets of civil rights legislation in the United States, which John Lewis and other civil rights crusaders contributed to the making.
John Lewis Contributions as a U.S. Congressman
Lewis left the leadership of SNCC to focus on other areas of national leadership. Though shattered by the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, John Lew did not abandon his civil right work. He became the director of the Voter Education Project (VEP), which helped to register a significant number of minority voters during his tenure. Lewis fast ran for office in 1981, capturing the Atlanta City Council seat (Mukasa, Cecelia, and Bost 18). He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1986 to represent Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis was re-elected 16 times, gathering over 70% of the votes except only 1994 when in managed 69% votes against 31% for Dale Dixon of the Republican (Hershey, Marjorie Randon 104). Until his death on July 17, 2020, Lewis remained among the most respected members of the U.S. Congress and has participated in health reforms, education improvement, and fighting poverty.
Overview of John Lewis Tenure as U.S. House of Representative
Lewis represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District until his death, the most unswervingly Democratic districts in the United States since it was formalized in 1845. As a member of the United States House of Representatives, Lewis condemned various forms of discriminations he criticized in March on Washington speech. For instance, in 2006, he rallied behind the re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act, and in 2008 sponsored legislation to strengthen the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on employment discrimination provisions (Mukasa, Cecelia, and Bost 22). His quest for the Americans to stop discriminating election practices and “rededicate ourselves to ensuring that every eligible American . . . can cast a ballot and have it counted” shows a continued struggle for “one man one vote” (Hershey, Marjorie Randon 97) that Levis advocated for nearly 50 years ago.
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Lewis was known for being among the most liberal members of the U.S congress, ferociously partisan Democrat and independent-minded. The “Atlanta Journal-Constitution” described Lewis as the only civil rights movement leader who extended the push for racial reconciliation and human rights to the Congress and fought diligently to ensure most amendments to the constitution passed through (Varda, Scott 139). In 1991, Lewis opposed the Gulf War led by the United States troops, and in 2000, the trade agreement between the U.S. and China that passed the House of Representatives. Three days after 9/11, John Lewis voted to allow President George W. Bush to apply force against the culprits, a vote that he termed as one of the most challenging decisions in his life. He is also remembered for sponsoring the Peace Tax Fund bill. Lewis was a “fierce partisan critic of President Bush,” and a critic of the U.S.-Iraq war (Varda, Scott 136).
On June 22, 2016, Lewis organized a sit-in bringing together about 40 democrats in the House of Representatives to bring to attention and perhaps force the Congress to find a solution to the gun violence issue. The sit-in came in the aftermath of the Orlando, Florida mass shooting on June 12, 2016. “We have been too quiet for too long,” Lewis said. “There comes a time when you have to say something. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet. This is the time” (Bade, Rachael, Heather Caygle, and Ben Weyl 12). The protest came after the Senate failed to pass several bills, including that which restricted the purchase of guns and the bill concerning background checks before a gun purchase.
John Lewis remained an icon in American civil rights movements that significantly influenced the dynamics of human rights, including the voting rights in the U.S. He died encouraged with the human rights progress that occurred in the United States over his lifetime. He was delighted to seen Barack Obama, the first African American to be elected the president of the United States. In 2008 during the inauguration of President Barak Obama, John Lewis stated that: “When we were organizing voter-registration drives, going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought — I never dreamed — of the possibility that an African American would one day be elected president of the United States” (John Lewis). The statement summarizes the struggles that Lewis and colleagues underwent advocating for human-rights and the final outcomes.
Bade, Rachael, Heather Caygle, and Ben Weyl. “Democrats stage sit-in on House floor to force the gun vote.” POLITICO, nd, (2016).
Eskew, Glenn T. “Barack Obama, John Lewis, and the Legacy of the Civil Rights Struggle.” (2012).
Herndon, Astead W. “‘Bloody Sunday’ Commemoration Draws Democratic Candidates to Selma.” The New York Times. (2020).
Hershey, Marjorie Randon. Party politics in America. Taylor & Francis, 2017.
Jeff Wallenfeldt. “John Lewis: American civil rights leader and politician. Britannica.” (2020).
Kara Furlong. “Learn about life and work of John Lewis in two titles from Vanderbilt University Press.” Vanderbilt University. (2020). https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2020/07/24/learn-about-life-and-work-of-john-lewis-in-two-titles-from-vanderbilt-university-press/
Lewis, John. “John Lewis (civil rights leader).” Children 1000.1968, (2012).
Mukasa, Dorothy Nanyonga Cecelia, and Matthew Bost. “Walking in the spirit of history: John Lewis’ March, historical witnessing, and the resources of collective memory.” (2019).
Rodriguez, Daniel B., and Barry R. Weingast. “The Positive Political Theory of Legislative History: New Perspectives on the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Its Interpretation.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 151.4 (2003): 1417-1542.
Varda, Scott J. “Sit-in as an argument and the perils of misuse.” Argumentation and Advocacy 55.2 (2019): 132-151.