On the 17th of July, US Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who played a pivotal role in ending the Jim Crow era of American history, passed away at the age of 80 after having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer six months earlier. In his passing, Lewis leaves behind the legacy of having fundamentally shaped the course of history in favour of equality, both racial and otherwise.
During the early hours of the 7th of March, 1965, in the small town of Selma, Alabama, a group of approximately 600 civil rights activists began a march to Montgomery, the state’s capital, demanding that African-American citizens were given the right to vote. As the group of activists crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge, on the outer rim of the small town, they were met with a barrage of violence from the Alabama state troopers waiting on the other side. On that day, John Lewis, the then 25-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who was leading the march, was left bloodied and with a fractured skull at the hands of troopers insistent on maintaining the subjugation of African-Americans throughout the United States.
Ten days after the protestors in Selma were attacked, and two days after President Lyndon Johnson’s endorsement of universal suffrage, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced in Congress, paving the way for African-American citizens of the United States to be given the right to vote. The law would be passed later that year, in August of 1965.
John Lewis was hardly a stranger to the brutality of racial discrimination. Having been one of the original freedom riders in 1961, the young activist was repeatedly beaten as he rode through the southern United States in a de-segregated bus. Indeed, during the Freedom Rides, Lewis was left unconscious at the Montgomery bus station after members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) boarded the bus and attacked the activists inside.
Though the violence faced by the civil rights activists of the 1960’s was intense, Lewis would later describe that “[the activists] would never become bitter or hostile. We kept believing that the truth we stood for would have the final say.” It was this immense resilience, and conviction which allowed John Lewis to eventually succeed in dismantling the Jim Crow laws which existed across the United States, and which gave him the strength to continue fighting for the equality of all individuals until his last breath.
In 1986, at the age of 46, John Lewis, bearing the scars of Selma, was elected to serve as the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th District. In this position, John Lewis continued to remain committed to realising the ideal of a society in which all individuals would receive equal treatment under the law.
Indeed, throughout his career in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lewis stood as one of the strongest defenders of the rights of African-Americans as well the rights of other communities. Lewis’s tenure in the U.S congress was defined by his consistent and longstanding support for the rights of the LGBTQ community in the United States, as well as those of other marginalised communities in the country. This support took the form of being one of the few politicians to support legalising same-sex marriage in 1996. In addition, Lewis repeatedly supported legislation which attempted to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
On the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, after having marched hand-in-hand with the then president Barack Obama, Lewis gave a speech in which he left the world with an imperative: “Don’t give up on the things that have great meaning to you. Don’t get lost in a sea of despair. Stand up for what you believe. Because in the final analysis, we are one people, one family, the human family.”
As we continue to exist in a world where, despite the advances which have been made throughout history, discrimination on the basis of gender, sex, sexual orientation and, indeed, race continue to pervade our societies; learning from the words and actions of John Lewis is vital to ensuring that the world he envisioned becomes a reality.