109. Civil-Rights Leader John Lewis Was A Giant Among Activists

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 27 July 2020
Publication: Business Day
Image courtesy of: Clay Banks via Unsplash

The death, this month, of African-American Congressman, John Lewis – the last surviving member of the speakers at the 1963 March on Washington – marks the distinctive passing of a golden age of sacred struggle. This was the generation of activists who sacrificed their lives for black freedom and equality.

John Lewis was born in 1940 in rural Alabama to sharecropping parents. He confronted racism early on when he was denied access to a local library. He became inspired to join the civil rights struggle when he heard a young Marin Luther King, Jr. preaching on the radio during the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott. Encouraged by King, he studied at the black Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. 

Lewis was renowned for his humility, integrity, and fearlessness. He developed an unshakable faith in the ultimate triumph of his “holy crusade”. In 1961, he was among the first 13 activists who embarked on a freedom ride: a bus tour that sought to desegregate inter-state transport to, and public facilities in, the American South. The freedom riders suffered attacks by white mobs and police in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi.

Lewis was also a co-founder of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which adopted King’s Gandhian “passive resistance” tactics and Jesus’s love ethic. SNCC fought to desegregate public amenities across apartheid America. Its members regularly suffered beatings, and some were murdered. Lewis himself was arrested 40 times between 1960 and 1966.

A 23-year old Lewis cemented his reputation in civil rights folklore as one of the six leaders to organise the 1963 March on Washington. Shortly before King delivered his seminal “I have a Dream” speech, Lewis asserted to the 200,000-strong crowd: “By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy.”

Lewis was, however, best known for attempting to lead the 1965 protest from Selma to Montgomery on “Bloody Sunday”. About 600 peaceful protesters were attacked by Alabama state-troopers. Lewis’s skull was fractured in this attack which was widely televised across American television screens, helping to galvanise the passage of the Voting Rights Act five months later.

With increasing impatience with non-violence, Lewis was replaced as SNCC chair in 1966 by the fiery apostle of “Black Power”, Stokely Carmichael.  At 26, Lewis had peaked, and was burned out. In 1968, he worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and was present when Kennedy was assassinated, a few months after Lewis’s “older brother” King’s own martyrdom. Lewis worked in the Jimmy Carter administration’s Action programme in the late 1970s. In 1986, he narrowly won Georgia’s Democratic House of Representatives seat, going on to serve in Washington D.C. for the rest of his 33 years on earth.

In the US Congress, Lewis’s legislative record was sparse. The former grassroots firebrand had become institutionalised in a body renowned for tawdry deal-making and pork-barrel politics. Lewis opposed Bill Clinton’s highly destructive 1998 “Welfare Reform” bill. He also condemned the illegal 2003 Iraq intervention. He championed the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s; supported the restoration of democracy to Haiti in the 1990s; opposed the genocidal campaign in Darfur in the 2000s; and closer to home, campaigned for gay and immigration rights in the 2010s.

America’s first black president, Barack Obama, awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom – America’s highest honour – in 2011. Lewis lived long enough to see the US Supreme Court’s 2013 reversal of some of the gains of the Voting Rights Act, as well as to see the recent “Black Lives Matter”-led global protests. Having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last December, he succumbed to his final battle at the age of 80. Lewis’s was America’s greatest generation, and he was the last of the great Mohicans.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.