Lankford Honors the Life and Legacy of Civil Rights Champion Rep. John Lewis
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February 21, 1940, John Lewis was born. Troy, Alabama. Son of share croppers, born to be a person to bring ‘good trouble’ to the nation. Grew up on his family’s form, attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. As a young buy he was inspired by the activism that surrounded him in Montgomery bus boycott and the works of a leader named Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He attended Fisk University and organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Tennessee. In 1961 he started participating in Freedom Rides. He was just a young man. But he would get on board a segregated bus and he would dare to sit in the whites only area. Just to make a simple statement that any person of any race should be able to sit anywhere they choose to sit in America and it be okay. He literally risked his life just riding on a bus in the wrong seat.
He became best-known in 1963 when he helped organize the March on Washington. He was part of what they called the Big Six in the civil rights movement. It was nationally recognized, and we lose track of the fact in 1963 when he was one of the keynote speakers in the March on Washington. He stood in front of the Lincoln memorial at 23-years-old. His focus on nonviolent protests, his focus on training people on how to be able to speak out for what is just and for what was right. His focus on challenging people to rethink justice and to be able to see all people created in the image of God, all people equal was a message that our nation needed to hear. And was a nation he delivered over and over again. From his youngest days, he brought ‘good trouble,’ as he said it to our nation, to awaken us.
He led 600 peaceful, orderly protesters across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. They were going to march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights changes in the state of Alabama. But Alabama state troopers met them there on what is known as Bloody Sunday as he and other peaceful protesters simply marching were attacked, were beaten, for doing what’s just. It’s a telling thing John Lewis’ body this past week to cross that historic bridge one last time. As he crossed to have Alabama state troopers stand on the bridge and salute his body as he went by. Because John Lewis brought change to America.
John Lewis was elected into Congress in 1986 for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. Where he served faithfully as being what was affectionately known as being the ‘conscience of the Congress’ He was trained in religious teachings, a theological degree. He was often called the reverend, never lost track of his faith. Treated people with respect, and even people he disagreed with, voted differently from, he would treat them with respect in a way that would honor God and honor them and honor his own family.
It was interesting, some of the statements that John Lewis has made over the years always struck me. In his quiet demeanor, in his stern way of addressing justice always came back to his faith. A statement that he made really sticks with me when he made the statement in 2004 and he said, ‘I’m deeply concerned that many people today fail to realize that the movement was built on deep-seeded religious convictions and the movement grew out of a sense of faith, faith in God, faith in one’s fellow human beings. Many of us who were participants in this movement saw our involvement as an extension of our faith.’ He said we saw ourselves doing the work of the Almighty. Segregation and racial discrimination were not in keeping with our faith, and so we had to do something and he did.
Representative Lewis left a long legacy as a civil rights leader. He will not be forgotten in our nation. The Big Six leaders made significant changes. And I think about those changes that he saw just in his lifetime and the changes that he personally was engaged in making in our nation. Representative Lewis once made the statement, ‘when people tell me nothing has changed, I tell them, come walk in my shoes and I’ll show you change.’ Because Representative Lewis just in his lifetime, in the battles that he fought and led and changed, changed segregated schools in America, took away segregated water fountains in America, took away segregated movie theaters in America, took away segregated public transport in America. Changed how people applied for jobs, got jobs, enjoyed their jobs. Changed the opportunities for a person being able to live wherever they wanted to live in America. Changed even how we vote in giving equal access for every American to be able to get to the ballot and vote. That is just in John Lewis’ lifetime.
He left a legacy of change. His nonviolent protests, his training and leading people stands in stark contrast to what I see some people who call it protest are doing right now. When I see what’s happening in Portland right now every night, in watching individuals gear up and literally attack federal law enforcement, throwing Molotov cocktails at them, pointing lasers at their eyes, shooting large-scale fireworks at them, trying to set a building on fire. When I watch that and those individuals try to say the they’re protesting for judgment, they’re not protesting for what’s just. John Lewis was protesting for what’s just.
John Lewis made the change in America and led a nation and led a generation, even as a young 23-year-old man, to do the right thing in the right way. The change that he brought is a gift to the generations for millennia in our nation.