Rep. John Lewis, as a Nashville college student, was part of a group that played an instrumental role in desegregating the city.
John Lewis rubbed the scar on his forehead, a reminder of the fractured skull he suffered when Alabama state troopers assaulted civil rights marchers trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965.
“From time to time, looking in a mirror, I tend to notice it,” he told USA TODAY in an interview that marked the 50th anniversary of the protest, and of the beating by a nightstick that left the scar. The march known as Bloody Sunday helped galvanize support for the Voting Rights Act and change the arc of American history.
“It just reminds me that some of us gave a little blood on that bridge to redeem the soul of America, to make America better,” Lewis said.
John Robert Lewis, diagnosed last December with pancreatic cancer, died Friday at the age of 80.
Born the child of Alabama sharecroppers, he became the youngest of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders who spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. By the time he died, he was the elder statesman for a new generation of racial protests fueled by outrage over the murder of George Floyd and other unarmed Black men by police. His final public appearance was a quiet visit on a Sunday morning last month at Black Lives Matter Plaza across from the White House.
An outpouring of accolades and grief across partisan lines followed the announcement of his death.
Lewis leaves a formidable legacy not because of his personal eloquence – he lacked the inspirational oratory of Martin Luther King Jr. or Barack Obama – nor because of landmark legislation he drafted. Instead, he was a figure of moral authority, grounded in his adherence to principles of equal rights and nonviolent protest, and in his willingness to repeatedly put his life on the line in Selma and elsewhere.
“A biblical figure,” said historian Jon Meacham, author of a biography of Lewis being published this fall. Many called him “the conscience of the Congress.”
“I thought I was going to die on that bridge,” Lewis said of the iconic Selma march, saying he expected it to be his final protest. The notion that down the road he might counsel presidents and serve in Congress for decades would have been unfathomable then.
“I would have said, ‘You’re crazy, you’re out of your mind; you don’t know what you’re talking about,'” he told me.
Yet that is precisely what he did.
Obama’s inscription: ‘Because of you, John’
Presidents knew his name.
As a young man, Lewis was one of a half-dozen civil rights leaders who met with John Kennedy in 1963 to tell him they were holding a March on Washington, news that the White House didn’t welcome. Two years later, Lyndon Johnson presented him with one of the pens he used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the photos of the brutal crackdown on the Edmund Pettus Bridge propelled its passage. As a congressman from Georgia, Lewis was an ally of Bill Clinton and an outspoken opponent of George W. Bush, a critic of his decision to invade Iraq.
On the day Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, the nation’s first African-American president, he presented Lewis with a photo inscribed: “Because of you, John.”
But a week before Donald Trump was sworn in, Lewis became the most prominent Democrat at that time to call him an illegitimate president, saying Russian interference had helped him win the office.
Trump fired back. “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to…mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results,” the president-elect responded in a pair of tweets. “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”
On Saturday morning, Trump ordered U.S. flags flown at half-staff on public buildings “as a mark of respect,” albeit only until the end of the day. On Saturday afternoon, hours after the four living former presidents had all issued statements of personal remembrance, Trump posted a two-sentence tweet saying he was “saddened” to hear of Lewis’ death.
“Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family,” he wrote.
Lewis didn’t seem particularly affected by praise – his awards included the Presidential Medal of Freedom – or by scorn. He was an implacable figure with a deep voice and a deliberate manner, unfailingly courteous to Capitol tourists who wanted to shake his hand. The determined expression he showed in the black-and-white TV footage at the Selma march is almost precisely the same as the one in photos of him standing on the “Black Lives Matter” mural across from the White House more than a half-century later, although his shoulders were a bit more stooped and his face more lined.
Never be afraid to ‘make some noise’
For someone who spent his life getting into what he called “good trouble,” he remained remarkably optimistic about the future of the country and the possibilities of protest.
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair,” he urged his supporters in 2018. “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.”
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