In a world where every new tattoo, wardrobe choice or random thought of every athlete and pseudo-celebrity is Twitter fodder, leave it to Atlanta congressman John Lewis to put life and the country in perspective.
“53 yrs ago today I was released from Parchman Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson for using ‘white’ restroom,” Lewis tweeted at 6:39 a.m. Monday.
And in a world where street cred is measured by arrests and how hot a mug shot is, the congressman’s tweet was accompanied by his Jackson Police Department mug shot: prisoner number 20886.
As expected, the tweet and picture got hundreds of comments. By 6:39 p.m., 12 hours after the original post, it had been retweeted 22,459 times and favored 14,013 times.
Ray Cole @raycoletv wrote: “Good reminder from the last living member of the “Big Six” of civil rights movement: not there yet but we’ve come a LONG way.”
Deborah NYC @DebsWorldNY added: “Thank you for your strength and commitment to justice. The strong speak for themselves, the strongest speak for others.”
National Public Radio host Michele Norris, curator of the Race Card Project, simply called Lewis, “Hero.”
There were also comments that were hysterically profane in their poignancy:
“That facial expression is awesome,” Tweeted By The Power Of र @NFNiTM. “Yeah I s*****d in your restroom, the f*** you gone do about it?!”
Lewis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he sent the tweet to his 37,200 followers to “educate and inform people who were not even born 53 years ago.”
Aside from the anniversary of his release from prison, 2014 also marks the 50th anniversary of both Freedom Summer and the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
“If someone had told me then that 53 years later on this date I would be sitting in Congress having witnessed the changes that I have seen, including the election of President Obama, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Lewis said. “When I walk the streets of D.C. and Atlanta, people say to me, ‘Thank you.’ Black, white, Asian, they appreciate what we did.”
Lewis’ arrest came through his efforts as a Freedom Rider. Having already participated in several Nashville sit-ins as a Fisk University student, Lewis volunteered in 1961 to go on the Freedom Rides, a potentially dangerous mission to challenge segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South.
On several occasions, the riders, including Lewis were harassed and beaten by angry mobs of whites. When he was arrested in May 24, 1961, he was sent to the notorious Parchman Penitentiary.
“Parchman was one of the worst prisons in America,” Lewis said, adding that he somehow avoided being beaten and forced to do hard labor while in prison, although he was only permitted to shower once a week.
Two years after his release, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington.
He has represented Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since 1986. During his last campaign, his t-shirts featured his now iconic mug shot, prompting Katy Otto @exfkaty to tweet. “You are one of a small handful of politicians that gives me hope for this country. Thank you immensely for your service.”