Remembering Congressman John R. Lewis

John Robert Lewis (February 21, 1940–July 17, 2020) was a giant in the civil rights movement whose wisdom, courage, and moral clarity earned him the nickname “the conscience of the Congress” during his 17 terms as a representative of Georgia’s fifth congressional district. Advocating nonviolence “not just as a technique, but as a way of life,” Lewis endured repeated beatings and arrests while leading civil rights protests during the 1960s. A founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when he was just 19, Lewis took the lead in organizing the freedom rides, sit-ins, marches, and other demonstrations that were part of the SNCC’s drive to end racial segregation and secure voting rights for millions of disenfranchised African Americans. The youngest person to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, he urged, “We must say wake up America, wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.”

In 1965, Lewis joined other organizers in leading a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to fight for voting rights. On Sunday, March 7, 1965, a day that would become known as Bloody Sunday, Alabama state troopers attacked unarmed marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with billy clubs and tear gas. Lewis, bloodied and bruised with a fractured skull, refused to rest. Days later, Lewis recounted the attack at a federal hearing. After it was ruled that the demonstrators had a constitutional right to march, the Selma to Montgomery marches continued March 21–25 with federal protection. Together these events led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

As we reflect upon a life spent in service of the ideals of democracy, his words continue to resonate and inspire the work to make America better—to make a more perfect union.

Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.

— Twitter @repjohnlewis June 2018