The Baton Passes to Us
Exercising your right to vote is the least possible way to honor the life of John Lewis. VOTE! And work to facilitate the ability of others to vote.
Every person’s voice is needed. Continue John Lewis’s message. Vote in every election to support the ideals to which he devoted his life! VOTE to honor John Lewis.
Fr. Victor Clore of Christ the King Parish in Detroit provided Home Visitors of Mary with the following account of the life and courage of John Lewis, a true prophet, a witness of love and rights …
John Robert Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama. His parents were sharecroppers. By the time he was six, Lewis had seen only two white people in his life. As he grew older, he began to experience racism and segregation. “White kids went to high school, Negroes to training school. We couldn’t take books from the public library.” John, called Preacher, was the odd child out. He loved books and hated guns.
At 15, Lewis first heard Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio. “Every minister I’d ever heard talked about ‘over yonder,’ where we’d put on white robes and golden slippers and sit with the angels. But this man was talking about the problems people were facing in their lives right now, black lives in the South.” He followed the Montgomery Bus Boycott, met Rosa Parks and King while still in high school.
He enrolled in the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville where aspiring black preachers willing to take campus jobs could attend free. Here he learned “New Testament pacifism” (how to love rather than strike the enemy tormenting you) and Gandhi-style civil disobedience (staying calm when punched in the head). These lessons guided Lewis (age of 20) and his friends as they formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They conducted sit-ins aimed at forcing retailers in Nashville to allow black customers to use the stores’ eateries. He experienced his first arrest when police collared the quiet young demonstrators, not the roughnecks who had been knocking them off their stools.
In 1961 he became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, sponsored by an older group, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Seven whites and six blacks determined to ride from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans in an integrated fashion (James Farmer). States in the old Confederacy still enforced laws prohibiting black and white riders from sitting next to each other. The “Freedom Rides” aroused fierce resistance. Lewis was the first to be assaulted. He tried to enter a whites-only waiting room in Rock Hill, South Carolina and two white men attacked him, injuring his face and kicking him in the ribs.
“Get into good trouble!”
Two weeks later Lewis joined a CORE Freedom Ride bound for Jackson. “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.” In Montgomery, an angry mob met the bus, and Lewis was hit in the head with a wooden crate. “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying unconscious.” When the bus was firebombed, CORE gave up on the Ride, but Lewis and fellow activist Diane Nash and other SNCC riders refused to quit. They brought that Freedom Ride to a successful conclusion – although Lewis spent 22 days in the infamous Parchman Penitentiary. The Freedom Rides drew national attention and attracted recruits. Robert Kennedy began to enforce the Supreme Court decision against segregated facilities. SNCC gained confidence: “We now meant to push, we meant to provoke.” He became well known for his expression: “Get into good trouble!” In June 1963, Lewis was elected as chairman of SNCC. By this time he had been arrested 24 times. His courage and his convictions about reconciliation and nonviolence made him emerge as a leader.
As chairman of SNCC, Lewis was the youngest (age 23) of the “Big Six” who organized the August 28, 1963 March on Washington, along with SCLC Martin Luther King Jr., National Urban League Whitney Young , CORE James Farmer, NAACP Roy Wilkins and Labor Unionist A. Philip Randolph. These men and the organizations they represented grew the human rights struggle in the United States into a powerful movement for social change.
We do not want our freedom gradually! We want our freedom now!”
The August 28 March is famous for Rev. King’s “I Have a Dream,” but Lewis was assigned the keynote, and he drafted a fiery challenge. Randolph and the other more experienced men knew that President Kennedy was concerned that the march would inflame tensions with Southern politicians and set back the civil rights cause. They convinced Lewis to tone it down, because they knew the sound engineers would pull the plug on the microphones if the speeches got too bombastic. His “toned down” speech was still quite forceful: “If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington! We must say, ‘Wake up, America, wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not be patient! We do not want our freedom gradually! We want our freedom now!”
We should all be working for the Kingdom of God in this real world
The contrast with his elders symbolized Lewis’ unusual role in those tumultuous years. At one point he rejected the advice “Don’t get arrested, get a lawyer.” Handcuffs and truncheons never dulled his belief in confrontation. Yet he stoutly maintained his belief in nonviolence, based on his faith in Christ, and he explicitly opposed the militant black nationalists. He always believed that we should all be working for the Kingdom of God in this real world, by following the Sermon on the Mount, and loving one another.
SNCC opened Freedom Schools, and in 1964, Lewis coordinated “Mississippi Freedom Summer.” Mississippi made it practically impossible for black persons to register and vote. The Freedom Summer was a campaign to convince people of the importance of voting, and to help them register. Lewis traveled the country encouraging college students to spend their summer working in this project, and at the same time they would learn of the perils of African American life in the South. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, from New York, worked as a team along with James Chaney, a local African American youth. They conducted sessions in a Methodist church. Then the church was set on fire. On the morning of June 21,Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner set out to investigate the burning. They were waylaid by the KKK, who chain-whipped and killed them. If this was meant to scare off the civil rights activists, John Lewis became more galvanized in his conviction that racist hate had to be confronted and defeated.
Lewis still bears scars on his head from the Edmund Pettus Bridge incident.
On March 7, 1965 – now known as “Bloody Sunday” – Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. and fellow activists led 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in a voting rights campaign. At the end of the bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers who ordered them to disperse. When the marchers stopped to pray, the police discharged tear gas and beat them with night sticks. Lewis’s skull was fractured. Before he could be taken to the hospital, he appeared before the television cameras calling on President Johnson to intervene in Alabama. Lewis bears scars on his head from the incident.
In 1966, as the War in Vietnam dragged on, he co-founded the Southern Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam. In 1968, Lewis joined Robert Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. He was with the entourage in Los Angeles when Kennedy was assassinated. Although the murder devastated him, campaigning sharpened his own interest in seeking public office.
In 1986, Lewis ran for U.S. Congress for Georgia’s 5th District (the north side of Atlanta), and won by 75%. He was reelected 16 times. Lewis was one of the most liberal congressmen ever to represent a district in the Deep South. He drew on his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement as part of his politics. He made an annual pilgrimage to Alabama to retrace the route he marched in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery. That trip became a tradition in Washington among lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, eager to associate themselves with Lewis and the movement. Now that Lewis has died, there is a movement to rename the Pettus bridge after him.
Will I ever be able to vote for a Black person?
After Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for president, Lewis said, “If someone had told me this would be happening now, I would have told them they were crazy, out of their mind, they didn’t know what they were talking about … I just wish the others were around to see this day. … To the people who were beaten, put in jail, killed, who were asked questions they could never answer [“Will I ever be able to vote for a Black person?” ] It’s amazing.”
Time magazine included him in list of “living saints.”
The last survivor of the “Big Six,” Lewis kept striving for black-white amity. Time magazine included him in a 1975 list of “living saints.” The New Republic in 1996 called him “the last integrationist.” Taylor Branch, a civil rights historian said: “His most distinguishing mark was steadfastness. He showed lifelong fidelity to the idea of one man, one vote – democracy as the defining purpose of the United States. “John Lewis saw racism as a stubborn gate in freedom’s way, but if you take seriously the democratic purpose, whites as well as blacks benefit. And he became a rather lonely guardian of nonviolence.”
On Inauguration Day 2009, Obama, the country’s first black president, gave Mr. Lewis a photo with the inscription: “Because of you, John.” It joined a memorabilia collection that included the pen President Lyndon B. Johnson handed him after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His last public appearance came at Black Lives Matter Plaza with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser on a Sunday morning in June, two days after taping a virtual town hall online with former president Barack Obama.
John Lewis served the role of conscience of the Democratic caucus on many matters. His reputation as keeper of the 1960s flame defined his career in Congress. When President George H.W. Bush vetoed a bill easing requirements to bring employment discrimination suits in 1990, Mr. Lewis rallied support for its revival. It became law as the Civil Rights Act of 1991. It took a dozen years, but in 2003 he won authorization for construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall In 2012, when Rep. Paul C. Broun proposed eliminating funding for one aspect of the Voting Rights Act, Mr. Lewis denounced the move as “shameful.” The amendment died. President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died of pancreatic cancer: “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”