Having grown up in London, the name John Lewis was never recognisable to me. After hearing about his passing away; reading about this remarkable man has been a humbling experience. This would be to celebrate the life of a man who truly shaped the world that we live in today.
Born in 1940s, he was raised in a time where inequality and segregation was rife throughout the USA. A time where repression and radical segregation were accepted within society, it would have been easy to settle into place and accept the status quo of disparity. However he would soon play a central role in activism leadership and civil rights movement which would go on to completely change the country that once kept him boxed. As a student his dedication to the Civil Rights movement became clear, with the Nashville sit-in movement which would lead to the desegregation of lunch counters in downtown Nashville. Organising bus boycotts and leading nonviolent protests for equality and voting rights cultivated a philosophy of discipline and nonviolence which created the settings for peace and justice to be nurtured, ones that would not be lost today.
He had become one of the original 13 Freedom Riders by 1961, a group of white and black people who were determined to ride from Washington D.C to New Orleans in an integrated fashion. This symbol of unity that victory could be found in a united front undeniably shattered the laws prohibiting black and white riders from sitting next to each other on public transportation that were still enforced in several states. This was also to apply pressure on the Supreme Court to declare segregated interstate bus travel to be unconstitutional. However the Freedom Rides exposed the passivity of the government and a certain turning of the eye against citizens of the country. Even the police who were called to protect the Riders and the Kennedy administration were altogether ineffective in their dealings. In the South, they were attacked by mobs and thrown into prison despite their philosophy of nonviolence. Throughout the years he would face more aggression and direct violence, being left at Greyhound bus station to die, yet despite this he went on to say:
'We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal. We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back'
With the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee, Lewis's experience at that point was already widely respected. His courage and his tenacious adherence to the philosophy of reconciliation and nonviolence made him emerge as a leader. Despite being arrested 24 times in the nonviolent movement for equal justice. had written a speech in reaction to the Civil Rights Bill of 1963, denouncing the bill because it did not protect African Americans against police brutality or provide African Americans with the right to vote. As one of the Big Six leaders he organised the March on Washington for the world renowned 'I Have A Dream' speech
"At the great Washington March of 1963, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), John Lewis, speaking to the same enormous crowd that heard Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech, was prepared to ask the right question: 'Which side is the federal government on?' That sentence was eliminated from his speech by organizers of the March to avoid offending the Kennedy Administration. But Lewis and his fellow SNCC workers had experienced, again and again, the strange passivity of the national government in the face of Southern violence." Howard Zinn
The Mississippi Freedom Summer was a campaign to register black voters across the South and expose college students from around the country to the perils of African-American life in the South. Lewis traveled the country encouraging students to spend their summer break trying to help people in Mississippi, the most recalcitrant state in the union, to register and vote
He also organized some of the voter registration efforts during the 1965 Selma voting rights campaign. The result of the Selma to Montgomery Marches was known as 'Bloody Sunday' as over 600 protesters were beaten by Alabama state police, Lewis himself suffereing from a fractured skull and bearing the scars for the rest of his life. He went on to become the director of the Field Foundation and the Voter Education Project before entering government and making changes from within.
I find the incredible nature of his early days to have allowed the most impact and course- changing events to occur. That despite insurmountable odds, he would continue with such integrity, passion and courage that would truly change the course of history. A man that has truly walked the path well.