Black History Month spotlight – John Lewis

John Lewis is a democratic U.S. representative of Georgia’s 5th district, dean of the Georgia congressional delegation, former chairman of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), former “Big Six” leader (collection of leaders of various groups that organized the 1963 March on Washington), and Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree.

In fact, he is still alive today and is continuing to make a difference in America as a civil rights leader and activist.

John Lewis grew up in Troy, Alabama and is one of nine children. He went to college in Nashville, Tennessee at Fisk University and on the side he organized sit-ins and attended nonviolence workshops led by Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Kelly Miller Smith.

He met Rosa Parks when he was only 17 and Martin Luther King Jr. the following year.

Lewis was arrested and beaten many times during this period. Lewis has repeatedly called this “good trouble,” in which his arrests were for challenging the Jim Crow laws at that time.

Eventually his efforts paid off as Nashville was desegregated on May 10, 1960 due to his and many other activists efforts in successfully pulling off these sit-ins.

When he was 23, Lewis was elected as chairman of the SNCC and was the youngest of the “Big Six” leaders.

The “Big Six” consisted of six prominent civil rights organizations that included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and, of course, John Lewis himself. These leaders organized the famous March on Washington in which Dr. King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. Lewis also spoke to the hundreds of thousands gathered there that day. He was the youngest and is now the last living speaker there that day.

“To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we have long said that we cannot be patient.  We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now!  We are tired.  We are tired of being beaten by policemen.  We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again.  And then you holler, “Be patient.”  How long can we be patient?  We want our freedom and we want it now.  We do not want to go to jail.  But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.” – John Lewis during his speech given on the March on Washington

He was also one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, a group of six black people and seven white people who traveled by bus from Washington D.C. to New Orleans sitting in a unified fashion (at the time whites and blacks were prohibited from sitting next to each other on public transportation).

This led to the Supreme Court case of Boynton v. Virginia that concluded segregated bus transportation to be unconstitutional. The Freedom Riders still continued their protesting on all forms of transportation. Eventually after many acts of violence towards the Freedom Riders, including their tires being deflated by the Klu Klux Klan and an angry mob surrounding the bus that caused Lewis himself to be beaten, they were forced to stop.

In 1965 John Lewis and the SNCC council organized one of the three most influential and important marches in American civil rights history. On March 7, 1965, John Lewis and Hosea Williams led over 600 peaceful and orderly protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with the intent to grant African Americans the right to vote.

They were eventually stopped by Alabama police. After a peaceful attempt to negotiate with the officers, the police began to shove the protesters to the ground and beat them with nightsticks. The marchers were fired with tear gas and mounted officers charged at the crowd with their horses.

In all, 17 protesters were hospitalized and 50 others were treated for lesser injuries. This day became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

The media at the time spread the unsettling images across newspapers and televisions. Such actions ignited a response from President Woodrow Wilson who promised to send forth a bill to allow people of color the right to vote. In August of that same year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, achieving John Lewis’ goal of the march.

Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence.

He still influences American government as a Representative of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 5th district of Georgia.

He is still the one of the greatest and most important civil rights advocates to this day. The United States is grateful towards all the suffering and hard work he endured to create a better and more respectable America.

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