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John Lewis Legacy

U.S. Rep. John Lewis recalls the brutality that activists faced at the hands of Alabama state troopers at the first attempted march from Selma to Montgomery.

John Robert Lewis was an American politician and civil-rights leader who served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020 from pancreatic cancer. Lewis served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966.

President Barack Obama hugs Lewis during a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches, March 7, 2015.

Few men die knowing the work they made the cause of their lives changed the destiny of a nation. Few men pass into eternity knowing their commitment to freedom and justice will inspire generations to come.

John Lewis was such a man.

Born in rural Alabama in 1940, in an America whose dream was denied by law and custom to him and others who looked like him, Lewis would dedicate his time on this earth to the goal of making American the more perfect union it was called to be at its founding.

Lewis showed this dedication during his time among the Freedom Riders, during countless beatings and arrests to force the federal government to enforce the Supreme Court decision Boynton vs. Virginia, which ruled segregation in interstate busing was unconstitutional.

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He showed that dedication during his time leading the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which held sit-ins and voter registration drives in Black communities throughout the Jim Crow South to confront an unjust status quo that was tolerated for far too long. He showed this dedication as the youngest (and last living) speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, where he called on those gathered to continue their fight until “true freedom comes and the revolution of 1776 is complete.”

Lewis also showed that dedication as a vanguard of the March 7, 1965, march in Selma, Alabama, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, demanding the right to vote. In what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” he and 600 other marches were ruthlessly beaten by police determined to halt their fight to end Jim Crow.

John Lewis lying in state at the United States Capitol.

This work continued more than 20 years later when Lewis was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he became known as the “Conscience of the Congress,” fighting for the same causes he nearly sacrificed his life for so many times before.

Lewis’ death comes at a time when our nation is once again at a crossroads, when America is to decide whether to move toward our ideals and values or shy away from them.

In December 2019, Lewis announced that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He passed away on July 17, 2020.