John Lewis made one of the last public appearances of a lifetime of courageous struggle for economic, social, and racial justice on a Sunday morning in early June. Though he was wrestling with the cancer that would take his life on Friday, July 17, at age 80, Lewis wanted to see Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., where painters had just completed a giant mural covering a two-block stretch of 16th Street leading to the White House.
Standing with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser near the spot where authorities had a few days earlier violently removed peaceful protesters so that President Trump could illustrate his threat to “dominate the streets” with a ham-handed photo-op in front of the parish house of historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lewis celebrated the right to assembly and petition for the redress of grievances.
He hailed the mural, with its 16 massive yellow letters spelling out the message “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” as he explained that people in D.C. and across the country were sending “a mighty, powerful and strong message to the rest of the world that we will get there.”
The tributes to Lewis following his death have recalled a commitment to address racial inequality that extended across more than 60 years, from the days when the young civil rights campaigner marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered the most militant address at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and was brutally beaten by police while helping to lead the “Bloody Sunday” march for voting rights on Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. But Lewis never stopped marching, speaking, and stirring up “good trouble”—as a Carter administration appointee, a member of the Atlanta City Council, and, since 1987, a congressional representative who used his prominence to amplify the messages of activists who challenged injustice.
Lewis, a self-described “off-the-charts liberal,” was a passionate critic of war and militarism, a determined advocate for economic justice, an early champion of LGBTQ rights, and the House’s essential spokesman for voting rights. He understood the power of his status as the man President Barack Obama and so many others recognized as an iconic inspiration. When Obama was inaugurated in 2009, he handed Lewis a photo on which the new president had written, “Because of you, John.” When Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017, Lewis announced that he would not be attending and sparked a boycott of the ceremony.
John Lewis could have rested on his laurels as the last remaining March on Washington speaker and a living connection to so much of what mattered in the history of the 20th history. Yet he chose to keep making history in the 21st century. When I interviewed him over the years, it was invariably on an issue of the moment—a piece of legislation, a platform fight, a campaign, a new protest.
Always an organizer, Lewis knew the power of forging links between the past and the present. He understood that he could bring moral authority to new discussions, new debates. Indeed, he ended his life doing just that.
A few days after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, as protests against police violence surged in that city and across the country, Lewis recalled the murder of Emmett Till, the African American youth whose lynching in Mississippi—and the outcry that extended from it—framed the urgency of the civil rights movement for Lewis and so many other young activists.
As the congressman explained on May 30 of this year:
Sixty-five years have passed, and I still remember the face of young Emmett Till. It was 1955. I was 15 years old—just a year older than him. What happened that summer in Money, Mississippi, and the months that followed—the recanted accusation, the sham trial, the dreaded verdict—shocked the country to its core. And it helped spur a series of non-violent events by everyday people who demanded better from our country.
Despite real progress, I can’t help but think of young Emmett today as I watch video after video after video of unarmed Black Americans being killed, and falsely accused. My heart breaks for these men and women, their families, and the country that let them down—again. My fellow Americans, this is a special moment in our history. Just as people of all faiths and no faiths, and all backgrounds, creeds, and colors banded together decades ago to fight for equality and justice in a peaceful, orderly, non-violent fashion, we must do so again.
Lewis recognized the frustration that so many felt at the persistence of systemic racism. Yet he advocated, as he had since his own days as a chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and one of the first prominent civil rights figures to object to the Vietnam War, nonviolent civil disobedience.
To the rioters here in Atlanta and across the country: I see you, and I hear you. I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive. History has proven time and again that non-violent, peaceful protest is the way to achieve the justice and equality that we all deserve.
Then John Lewis went to work. Even as he neared the end of his seven-month battle with pancreatic cancer, the congressman appeared with Obama and civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson as part of a Zoom town hall organized by the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Lewis hailed a new generation of activists who had taken Black Lives Matter protests to the streets, declaring, “They’re going to help redeem the soul of America.”
The congressman took the same message to Capitol Hill, delivering a stirring floor statement in favor of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act on June 25.
“For far too long, equal justice and protection under the law have been deferred dreams for Black people and communities of color across our country,” he began.
As we consider this bill, people throughout Metro Atlanta and throughout my home state of Georgia are gripped by pain and anguish over the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, who was the beloved son of our colleague Congresswoman Lucy McBath, and countless others. The pain in the depths of our souls is constant and all consuming. It is the seemingly endless nightmare from which we cannot awake.
But Lewis did not surrender to despair. Rather, as he had so many times over so many years, he took strength from those who demand that the nation awake:
Today, young people are taking up the mantle in a movement that I know all too well. All over the world, communities are once again joining the call for racial equity and equality. While their feet march towards justice, their pain, their frustration, and petitions cannot—must not—be ignored. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act provides us with an opportunity to practice what we preach. While we use our speech to advance American ideals such as freedom, liberty, and justice for all, we must use our hands to implement these values.