Remembering John Lewis, the voice of generations

Why We Wrote This

Few figures rise to the ranks of legend in their own lifetimes. John Lewis earned that distinction by showing America how to counter hate and injustice with love, tolerance, and conscience.

AP/File
State troopers swing billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965. In the foreground, John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is being beaten by a state trooper.

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Long before the nation knew who he was, John Lewis put his life and livelihood on the line in the name of nonviolent protest. He was a man defined by honesty and integrity, and those ideals shaped his career from his days as a Freedom Rider and protest organizer to 17 terms in Congress.

He was 15 years old the first time he heard the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio. Less than a decade later, he was working alongside Dr. King as part of the “Big Six” leaders of the March on Washington, a civil rights hero in his own right.

His words from the March on Washington, a protest organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, still echo throughout the country:

“I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation,” he told the crowd in the nation’s capital on August 28, 1963. “Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.”

The voice of John Lewis spoke to the conscience of the nation for more than half a century.

His profound and poignant voice kicks off the official trailer for “Good Trouble,” a recent documentary about his life and work: 

“My philosophy is very simple: When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just – say something, do something,” Mr. Lewis said. “Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble!”

Almost 60 years prior, during the March on Washington, a protest organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Mr. Lewis spoke to the crowd about the urgent need for jobs and freedom.

While the march served as Mr. Lewis’ introduction to the country, the events of “Bloody Sunday” made him an icon.

Mr. Lewis, who at that time was SNCC chairman, and the Rev. Hosea Williams, one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lieutenants in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led a protest of nearly 600 marchers out of Selma, Alabama, to address civil rights and voting rights. They were met at the Edmund Pettus Bridge with severe police violence, which included tear gas and nightstick attacks. 

“I thought I saw death,” Mr. Lewis famously said of the events of March 7, 1965. “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I had a concussion at the bridge. ... My legs went out from under me. I felt like I was going to die.”

By God’s grace, he lived. And what a life he lived.

Jay Paul/Reuters

Before the March on Washington, Mr. Lewis became one of the original Freedom Riders in 1961. Long before the nation knew who he was, Mr. Lewis put his life and livelihood on the line in the name of nonviolent protest.

Again, Mr. Lewis stared death in the face after he was hit in the head with a wooden crate. Again, he did not blink. 

He was 15 years old the first time he heard the words of Dr. King on the radio. Less than a decade later, he was working alongside Dr. King as part of the “Big Six” leaders of the March on Washington, a civil rights hero in his own right.

He transitioned from his work in the field as an organizer and a protester to working with the Field Foundation of New York in 1960. From there, he started his career in government, which crested with his election in 1986 to the House of Representatives for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. He served 17 terms in Congress and became the dean of the Georgia congressional delegation. 

Representative Lewis was a man defined by honesty and authenticity – so much, in fact, that even when caricatured, those attributes shined through.

His life and legacy were the motivation for a graphic novel trilogy, “March.” Mr. Lewis himself introduced the trilogy in San Diego at Comic-Con 2015. He also dressed the part. 

Mr. Lewis donned an overcoat and book bag – similar to the clothes he wore on “Bloody Sunday.” Instead of leading protesters, he led a group of children through the halls of the San Diego Convention Center. 

It was a fitting gesture. Mr. Lewis always had a knack for ushering in a new generation.

His words from the March on Washington are a mural and a memorial. An excerpt of those words were painted on a wall, along with Mr. Lewis’ likeness, and were dedicated during a ceremony in downtown Atlanta in 2012.

Late Friday night, after Mr. Lewis’ passing, the mural started to fill up with mourners, flowers, and candles. His appeal, as sure as it echoes off that wall, echoes still in our hearts. It describes the work that is happening and the work yet to be done:

“I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.

“We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution.”

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