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In Memoriam: John Robert Lewis: “… young people will lead the way. The last thing he said was, ‘Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Be brave.’” : NYT


john lewis as a young man

John Lewis was born in 1940 in Troy, Alabama to a family described as sharecroppers; he was the third of ten children.  He recalled later that by the time he was six, he had only seen two white people.  His parents tried to teach him to live with things the way they were, but after he heard Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio when he was fifteen, he couldn’t accept it.  He was drawn by Reverend King’s message of Christian nonviolence in search of human rights for black people, and he spent his life fighting nonviolently for his people.

According to this web page from, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks (a member of NAACP since 1943) had been sitting in the first row of the seats reserved for “colored” people when the bus filled up and the bus driver demanded that she give up her seat so that a white man could sit.  Three other black people in the same row stood up to accommodate the bus driver’s demand to turn the row into a whites-only row, but Ms. Parks refused.  She later said that her feet weren’t tired after working all day as a seamstress at a department store, but she was “tired of giving in.”

She apparently already knew that the local chapter of the NAACP had been planning a bus boycott for months with Reverend King in the lead, but had been divided on its exact implementation.  The boycott was in response to the law which had recently passed by the Montgomery City Council, requiring black riders to give up their seats to whites if the whites-only section of the bus was full.  She was arrested by two officers who met the stopped bus, handcuffed, and taken to jail.  She was released on bail later that night and scheduled for trial on December 5.

At trial, she was fined a total of $14– $10 plus court costs.  The bus boycott, which began prematurely on December 5, lasted more than a year and deprived the bus line of the 70% of its riders who were not white.  According to, “On November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Alabama state and Montgomery city bus segregation laws as being in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”  On December 20, Reverend King called for an end to the boycott, and the next day, black riders including Rosa Parks returned.  Most of the black ridership of the bus line had been walking to work for more than a year.

John Lewis attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, “historically black” educational institutions which granted him a bachelor’s degree in Religion and Philosophy.  While still a student, he participated in attempts to desegregate lunch counters and attended workshops in nonviolence led by local religious leaders in the basement of the Clark Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville.  He was arrested many times for his non-violent demonstrations and attempts to desegregate downtown Nashville.

Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee

Mr. Lewis attended the conference that organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 and became its chairman in 1963.  SNCC grew out of the sit-in movement with the encouragement of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as a commitment to “participatory democracy” instead of top-down leadership.  SNCC developed a new strategy of not paying bail, in part to save money, but more to signal its opposition to the corrupt legal system which allowed people to be punished before (or without) conviction for any crime.

Mr. Lewis continued as chair of SNCC until 1966, when it was taken over by Stokely Carmichael, who emphasized “black power”.  Thereafter, the SNCC’s influence waned and it was infiltrated by FBI agents.

One of SNCC’s first successes was the tactic of “kneel-ins” in which they knelt outside of white-only churches.  In August 1960, the United Presbyterian Church’s 172nd General Assembly wrote to SNCC: “Laws and customs requiring racial discrimination are, in our judgement, such serious violations of the law of God as to justify peaceful and orderly disobedience or disregard of these laws.”  (Wikipedia)

In 1961, Mr. Lewis became one of the thirteen original “Freedom Riders” who attempted to desegregate the interstate bus lines from Washington DC to New Orleans, Louisiana.  Seven white people and six black people were the tip of the spear for groups like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) who wanted to help enforce the 1960 Supreme Court decision that declared segregation of interstate bus routes to be unconstitutional, invalidating multiple state laws.  In response, the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent agents to tag along with the Freedom Riders.  They did not intervene when the Riders were beaten and arrested on multiple occasions, but they did take notes.

President Kennedy called for a “cooling-off period” after the violent incidents and CORE abandoned the project.  Mr. Lewis persisted, and was imprisoned in the Mississippi State Penitentiary for forty days.  He was beaten in numerous bus stations, including Montgomery, Alabama.  He said,  “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious…”

The beatings will continue until morale improves…

Federal Legislation to achieve Civil Rights and Voting Rights

The federal government passed laws reinforcing the Supreme Court decisions and helping to implement the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  President Kennedy proposed a law in June 1963 that was held up by a filibuster in the Senate.  After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson took up the cause; after a 54-day filibuster, a law was passed in June 1964. It “outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  It prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements, and racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations.”  (Wikipedia)

The law was supplemented by further legislation that asserted Congress’ authority to regulate interstate commerce, ” its duty to guarantee all citizens equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment, and its duty to protect voting rights under the Fifteenth Amendment.”  (Wikipedia)  A year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an act called the Equal Pay Act of  1963 was passed which prohibited pay discrimination “based on sex.”  Oddly, this act was added to the Civil Rights Act for controversial reasons– and was used by the Supreme Court in 2020 to bar discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.  (See Wikipedia on the controversy under “Civil Rights Act of 1964– Women’s Rights“)

In 1964, the SNCC tried to organize a parallel Democratic Party primary in Mississippi which sent a delegation to the Democratic National Convention in August to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation.  The delegation was not allowed to be seated, despite the nationally televised testimony of an SNCC member who had been a sharecropper and had been brutalized attempting to register to vote.  The black delegates were offered two “at-large” seats from which they could observe the convention but not vote.  They turned them down and walked out.


Organized attempts to register black people to vote were violently resisted by the white establishment.  Sit-ins at lunch counters in Selma, Alabama began after the bombing of a church in Montgomery on September 15, 1963 and were met with beatings and arrests.  As chairman of the SNCC, John Lewis was a prominent member of the protests, and was among more than 300 people arrested in two weeks.

The Dallas County Voting League was organized to help blacks register to vote in Selma.  Only two days a month were available for the public to come in to register at the courthouse.  At one event, in October 1963, more than 300 blacks waited in line all day in an attempt to register; members of SNCC who tried to bring water to those waiting were arrested.

On July 6, 1964, four days after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, John Lewis led 50 black people to the courthouse to register on one of the two allowed days that month; they were all arrested instead.  Three days later, a judge issued an injunction forbidding any group of three or more people from assembling under the leadership of any civil rights organization.

The Selma Voting Rights Campaign began on January 2, 1965 (a day when the sheriff was out of town and couldn’t enforce the injunction) with a mass meeting led by Reverend King.  On January 15, Reverend King called President Johnson, who agreed to start a big push to pass a strong voting rights act; Johnson also wanted to pass additional anti-poverty legislation.  The local town police chief wanted to suppress violent anti-black activities (although he was still in favor of segregation) and he arrested a man who beat Reverend King.  He also arrested George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party, who had come to town voicing violent threats against Reverend King.

The sheriff, however, controlled the block around the courthouse, and he continue to beat and arrest any blacks who tried to register.  On January 25, 1965, a US District Court judge ordered that at least 100 people be allowed to wait in line to register at the courthouse; the sheriff arrested everyone over that limit.  The demonstrations and violent arrests continued.  On February 4, President Johnson made his first public statement in support of the blacks’ attempts to register to vote in Selma.

By the end of the month of February 1965, 300 black people were registered to vote in Selma (as opposed to 9500 white people.)  During a demonstration in February in the nearby town of Marion, a protestor, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot by a state trooper and died eight days later; the trooper claimed that he had tried to grab his gun and there were no witnesses or video to contradict him.

Reverend King and the SCLC wanted to provoke a public outcry, but John Lewis and many in the SNCC were more concerned with trying to help people register to vote.  Despite his reservations, Mr. Lewis agreed to lead a march with the Reverend Hosea Williams from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965.

That march led to a confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.  Between 500 and 600 marchers were stopped by a wall of state troopers and volunteers, some on horseback.  They were brutally beaten and tear-gassed.  Seventeen were hospitalized, and Mr. Lewis received a fractured skull (one of many beatings he endured at the hands of racists, for which he never fought back.)

The whole affair was televised, and national audiences were treated to views of peaceful black protesters being beaten unconscious by white thugs in uniform.  President Johnson released a statement “deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated.”

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed after a national outcry over the vicious beating of black marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama known as “Blood Sunday.”  This law stopped “literacy tests”, poll taxes, and other racist impediments to voting registration that had prevailed across the southern United States.

This Act was eviscerated by the Supreme Court in 2013 when it declared a portion of it unconstitutional, making it impossible to enforce the requirement that certain states with a history of discrimination obtain prior approval before making changes to voting laws.  See Wikipedia’s “Voting Rights Act of 1965” for details.

Outrage and Aftermath of Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday was only the most televised and best known of many beatings that black people have endured at the hands of racist thugs in uniform (and out.)  Malcolm X planned to start fighting back, but he was assassinated.  Many other nonviolent demonstrators were murdered.  Black people are still being murdered at the hands of police, but not as many as in the past– a small improvement, to be sure.

However, as a result of national outrage over Bloody Sunday, the Civil Rights Act of 1965 made it possible for black people to register to vote and develop some political power.  In places where they are a majority of the population, black representatives are carrying their voices in Congress as well as in local offices.  In places where they are still a minority (which means most places) they can at least vote and demonstrate with some degree of safety.

Mr. Lewis was first elected to Congress in 1986, representing the 5th District, (which is 58% black and 99% urban), including the northern three-quarters of Atlanta, Georgia.  He served 17 terms, dying in office yesterday.  He was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in December 2019 and died on July 17, 2020.  He is best known for his civil-rights activism and his adherence to non-violence, positions he shared with Reverend King.  He was probably the last of the well-known civil rights activists from the sixties, and he was known as the “Conscience of the Congress.”  He will be missed.

Obtaining the right to vote and the right to integrate public facilities is only the beginning.  There are many things that are still separate and unequal.  We can only hope that the end of the beatings will result in better morale.


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