Posted on 22 April 2021
John Lewis (1940 – 2020) was an American civil rights leader who helped organise the groundbreaking March on Washington.
Lewis was born into a rural family of farmers that lived in Pike County, Alabama. As a boy, experiencing racial segregation in the South, he became inspired to be an activist when he heard Martin Luther King on the radio.
As a student, Lewis became an activist in the civil rights movement. He organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville and took part in many other civil rights activities as part of the Nashville Student Movement.
During this time, Lewis said it was important to engage in “Good trouble, necessary trouble” in order to achieve change. Using non-violent direct action he organised protests to support voting rights and racial equality.
In 1961, he became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. The ‘riders’ were a mixed ethnic group that travelled by instate bus from Washington DC to New Orleans, with the aim of highlighting the injustices of segregation on public transport.
Two years later, in 1963, Lewis became the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It would be the year that Lewis became chairmen, when the United States would experience its most famous march.
Organising The March’s Support
Fighting for racial justice as well as education and employment, the 1963 March on Washington was chiefly organised by civil rights activists, led by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Between them, they built an alliance of civil rights, labor, and religious organisations that came together under the banner of ‘Jobs and Freedom.’
From this alliance of organisations, six of its leaders formed the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership (CUCRL), an umbrella group to coordinate funds and messaging. This group became known in civil rights history as the ‘Big Six’ and included Lewis as chairman of the SNCC.
About two months before the march, the Big Six widened their alliance’s reach by including four white leaders of similar organisations. Therefore, the ‘Big Six’ expanded into the ‘Big Ten. A month before the march was due to take place the CUCRL met with President Kennedy.
Kennedy warned against creating “an atmosphere of intimidation” by bringing a large crowd to Washington. The civil rights activists successfully convinced him that the march would be peaceful as, the next day, he announced that the planned protest could proceed.
On Wednesday, August 28, Some 250,000 supporters packed the 1.9 miles (3 km) strip from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, making it one of the largest political gatherings the country had ever seen. There were 10 headliners to speak that day and Lewis was fourth.
The tenth and final speaker was Martin Luther King Jr who delivered his iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
Two years after the March on Washington, in 1965, Lewis became a national figure in his own right with his role in the events that became known as Bloody Sunday. Taking place on March 7, 1965, Lewis and a fellow activist organised a march in Alabama starting from Selma and ending in Montgomery.
At the end of the route, in Selma, a movement of 600 marchers started crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge only to be met by Alabama State Troopers who ordered them to disperse. When the marchers stopped to pray, the police discharged tear gas and mounted troopers charged the demonstrators, beating them with nightsticks.
Lewis’s skull was fractured, but he was aided in escaping across the bridge to Brown Chapel, a church in Selma that served as the movement’s headquarters. Lewis bore scars on his head from this incident for the rest of his life.
Later Years and Legacy
After several years of being politically involved at a local level, in 1986, Lewis became a national politician – when he was first elected to Congress representing the Democratic party. He would go on to serve 17 terms campaigning for the same issues he had when he was a student. In 2011, Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor, presented by President Obama.
The March on Washington is credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as inspiring civil rights movements worldwide.
In December of 2019, Lewis announced he had pancreatic cancer and after a six month battle with the disease he died on July 17, 2020, aged 80. President Obama said of Lewis’ legacy :
“Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did…And thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise”
In honour of Lewis’ legacy, there is a campaign to rename the Selma Bridge from Edmund Pettus to John Lewis.
Images from www.vox.com/, patch.com/ and www.theguardian.com/