Rep. John Lewis, Civil Rights icon dies after battle with cancer, leaves legacy of justice and power

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In December 2019, Rep. John Lewis says his fight against stage IV cancer was one of his toughest battles. He succumbed to his illness on Friday.

Two months before his death, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) stood in the middle of a Washington DC street renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza. He was observing the first act of defiance by a public official who used a main thoroughfare to send a message to President Donald Trump. Days before, President Trump used the military to brutalize peaceful protesters against anti-Black police killings. In response, Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned the slogan to be painted on a street by the White House.

On this day, Rep. Lewis was visibly smaller than his normal stature, but his eyes remained piercing and focused. While absorbing what was one of his last demonstrations of defiance, he also gave the crowd six decades of frontline advocacy work. Until the end, Rep. John Lewis stayed the course.  On July 17, he left a record of dedication for justice and humanity. He is a quintessential American hero.

John Lewis standing on the Black Lives Matter public statement by Washington DC’s Mayor Muriel Bowser. Photo credit: Clay Banks

. . .

Last week, as Rep. Lewis was losing his battle to advanced pancreatic cancer, he announced an anniversary. Fifty-nine years ago he “ was released from Parchman Farm Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson, MS for using a so-called “white” restroom during the Freedom Rides of 1961.

At the time, Rep. Lewis was 21-years-old, but a brimming veteran in the Civil Rights movement. Before he could vote, Rep. Lewis marched, organized sit-ins and agitated with his forebears whom he respected immensely: Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, Joseph Lowery and C.T. Vivian. 

Born and reared in an Alabama sharecropping community, Rep. Lewis grew up against stories surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A successful ride-stoppage of public transportation to desegregate local busing, African American women initiated and largely funded the boycott. Notedly, Georgia Teresa Gilmore, a cafeteria cook and mother of six, organized the fundraising campaign. In her efforts, she mobilized local women to sell fried fish, collard greens, sweet potato pies and poundcake door-to-door. 

Through their efforts, and those of the local NAACP Chapter, along with a young, reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rep. Lewis heard about the power of protest as a boy. Moreover, while looking at Dr. King from a distance, he knew that was his purpose. 

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Eventually, Rep. Lewis would leave his rural enclave for college at Fisk University. Immediately, he involved himself in desegregation efforts. By the time he was 21, he became an integral member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

By the time he was 23-years-old, Rep. Lewis became the chairman of SNCC. In 1965, he organized a march with over 600 across Edmund Pettus Bridge. The purpose of the demonstration was for voting rights. Before rally-goers could cross the overpass, Alabama state troopers descended upon them, beating hundreds of protestors. Included in those badly bludgeoned was Rep. Lewis. The day became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Rep. Lewis would be jailed over 40 times and encounter more police brutality. Nonetheless, he displayed a relentlessness in protesting for change.

After the Civil Rights movement ended, Rep. Lewis entered into establishment and electoral politics. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to lead a federal volunteer organization then he was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981. In 1987, he won the seat as the congressional representative for the 5th District where he remained until death.

Rep. Lewis’ last public outings were him taking pictures with local demonstrators in Washington DC. As he stood on the bright yellow words, Black Lives Matter, he seemed to be passing on the baton. Perhaps he knew that all was in good hands. Perhaps he knew he’d carried out his purpose. Nonetheless, even in the face of death, he stood, unwavering.

Re. Maxine Waters, who has served in congress alongside Rep. Lewis posted this Twitter message:

Rep. John Lewis has passed. It is not enough to say he was a revered civil rights icon. He was a man of impeccable integrity who dedicated his life to fighting against racism, discrimination & injustice. John was a true leader who inspired us all to have the courage to fight.

Details of his funeral were not available at press time.

Kaia Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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