Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in July 2018.
John Lewis has lived at the forefront of American history for the past half-century. From being the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington to serving more than 30 years in Congress, Lewis has been helped shape civil rights in America for decades.
1. He bled to ‘make America great’
That is a quote by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. But he is right. Think about two of he most visible representations of violence inflicted on civil rights workers in the 1960s and you will see John Lewis’ face.
Lets start with the obvious – Bloody Sunday. Lewis was only 25-years-old on March 7, 1965 when he and Hosea Williams attempted to lead a group of marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on their way to Montgomery. The goal of the march was to bring attention to the lack of voting rights in Alabama and across the country for blacks. As they reached the apex of the bridge, the marchers were beaten back by police officers using clubs, whips and tear gas. Fifty-eight people, including Lewis, were treated for injuries at a nearby hospital. The attack spurred support throughout the nation and Congress for what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But in reflecting on that horrible day, Lewis would say: “I was hit in the head by a State Trooper. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die.”
It wasn’t the first time. Now go back to 1961, when Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. The Freedom Riders were young black and white activists who wanted to test segregation laws in interstate bus terminals. On May 9 in Rock Hill, S.C., Lewis was one of several Freedom Riders viciously beaten.
“The bus pulled in. He got out and started over there to the door,” said former Klansman Elwin Wilson in 2010, adding that he started beating Lewis when he opened the door to a “whites only” waiting room. “I remember him laying there, and it was blood on the ground and somebody done called the police.”
In 2009, Wilson found Lewis and apologized.
Lewis accepted it.
2. The March on Washington
Martin Luther King Jr., was obviously the headliner at the historic March on Washington in 1963, but Lewis made a name for himself as the event’s youngest speaker and youngest member of the “Big Six.”
But it almost turned out very differently for the 23-year-old. The initial version of Lewis’ speech was full of fire. He said: “You tell us to wait. We cannot be patient.” Lewis said. “We want our freedom, and we want it now.”
In the speech he submitted, the day before the march, he also included the line: “If we don’t see meaningful progress here today, there will come a day when we will not confine our marching to the South. We will be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did — nonviolently.”
When Lewis arrived at the march the next day, he was greeted by organizers Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph, who told them that the archbishop, who was close to President Kennedy would not deliver the invocation if those lines stayed in there. Lewis, who was representing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said he was speaking for them. King told him, ““John, this doesn’t sound like you.”
Randolph said: “John, for the sake of unity — We’ve come together. Let’s stay together. Can we change this?”
Lewis changes his speech.
3. Citizen Lewis
In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. During the 2011 ceremony at the White House, Obama said: “There’s a quote inscribed over a doorway in Nashville, where students first refused to leave lunch counters 51 years ago this February. And the quote said, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” It’s a question John Lewis has been asking his entire life. It’s what led him back to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma after he had already been beaten within an inch of his life days before. It’s why, time and again, he faced down death so that all of us could share equally in the joys of life. It’s why all these years later, he is known as the Conscience of the United States Congress, still speaking his mind on issues of justice and equality. And generations from now, 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..”
After the ceremony, Lewis said in marvel: “If somebody told me one day I would be standing in the White House, and an African American president presenting me the Medal of Freedom, I would have said, ‘Are you crazy’? Are you out of your mind?”
4. Lewis the Criminal
According to a 2013 press release – proudly issued by his office mind you – Lewis had been placed in handcuff 45 times. His spokeswoman said he was arrested 40 times during the Civil Rights Movement - fighting for justice, freedom and voting rights. And up until then, five times since he became a congressman.
Among those latter arrests including twice being busted at the South African embassy for protesting apartheid and twice at the Embassy of the Sudan protesting genocide in Darfur.
In 2014, Lewis tweeted a 1961 mug shot of an arrest in Mississippi that landed him in the notorious Parchman Penitentiary.
“53 yrs ago today I was released from Parchman Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson for using ‘white’ restroom,” Lewis tweeted.
It has been retweeted more than 71,000 times. Of the thousands of comments, some noted the look on Lewis’ face with profane 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?!”
5. Lewis the writer
John Lewis is no stranger to the printed word. In 1998, he release his acclaimed autobiography, “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.” But it wasn’tuntil 2016, that he was awarded a National Book Award. He, along with Atlanta native and writer Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell, won for young people’s literature — for “March: Book Three,” a graphic novel.
The third installment of a series, the book tells the story of the historic march on Selma and the civil rights movement.
“It’s unreal. It’s unbelievable,” Lewis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I started crying because it was so moving.”
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