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Congressman John Lewis

By W. McNair

On July 17, 2020 the beloved civil rights leader, Representative John Lewis, died of pancreatic cancer. He was born on February 21, 1940 in a rural area outside of Troy, Alabama to sharecroppers, Eddie and Willie Mae Lewis. From his youth he desired to be a preacher so much so that he would preach around the family's farm to the chickens. Later in his life he would go to the city of Troy where he found out firsthand that others did not like him because of the color of his skin. Although he officially preached his first sermon when he was 17 after graduating from American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee and becoming a Baptist minister, Lewis continued preaching equality and justice for all through his dedicated service to the community and the world.

During his time in Nashville, Lewis organized sit-ins and many other civil rights activities. The lunch counter sit-ins he organized were responsible for the desegregation of lunch counters in that area. His passion for equality and equity resulted in him being arrested on several occasions. He has often remarked that there comes a time when you must get involved in "good trouble" in order to stand up for what is right. Also, in 1961 at the age of 20, Lewis was one of the thirteen, who was part of the first group of Freedom Riders to attempt to ride from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans on an integrated bus. He and others were beaten with pipes, bats, chains, and stones and arrested during these bus rides protesting the segregated bus system. Still, he continually tried to integrate segregated areas which usually resulted in physical harm and imprisonment. 

After helping to found Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he later was elected to be its chairman where he continued to lead the fight for justice and freedom. For instance, SNCC opened Freedom Schools to education Blacks, organized voter registration events, and assisted others in organizing the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the "I Have a Dream" speech. In 1965 at 25 years old, he had a prominent role in the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama also known as "Bloody Sunday." When the marchers got to the end of the bridge, they were met with tear gas and attacked and beaten by the Alabama State Troopers. Lewis thought that he was going to die after his skull was fractured during the beating. However, he proudly wore those scars for the remainder of his life.

Lewis served in the U. S. House of Representatives from Georgia's 5th district for 17 terms from January 3, 1987 until his death.  In The Washington Post, Carlson (1998) described Lewis as "a fiercely partisan Democrat but ... also fiercely independent." Lewis characterized himself as a strong and adamant liberal. Kemper (2006) wrote in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Lewis was the "only former major civil rights leader who extended his fight for human rights and racial reconciliation to the halls of Congress" and also said that to "those who know him, from U.S. senators to 20-something congressional aides," he is called the "conscience of Congress."

President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy at  Congressman John Lewis' funeral on July 30, 2020 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Obama passionately stated, “I've come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom." President Obama continued, "Now this country is a constant work in progress. ...We're born with instructions to form a more perfect union. Explicit in those words is the idea that we're imperfect. What gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it farther than any might have thought possible."

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