John Lewis was a giant of the Civil Rights Movement, and his life’s work was dedicated to the values of equality and justice for all people. Lewis was born to sharecroppers in racially segregated Alabama, but he died a United States Congressman. That is a story that does not happen every day.
The road toward civil rights has been long, and the journey remains incomplete, but John Lewis managed to get a lot done. His peaceful resistance to injustice was often met with a violent response, which included multiple arrests and trips to jail. As well, John Lewis took several beatings, one so severe that it fractured his skull.
“Some of us gave a little blood to participate in the democratic process”.John Lewis
Throughout his life, John Lewis was dedicated to the philosophy of non-violence, and incorporated these principles into his activism. Non-violence in the Civil Rights Movement was inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, who successfully used this strategy to gain India’s independence from British rule.
“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”Martin Luther King Jr
In the same way that Ghandi’s non-violence strategy brought India’s struggle for independence to the attention of the entire world, the use of non-violence resistance by black civil rights activists elevated their cause. Few decent people could ignore the reality of brutality toward peaceful citizens.
At 21 years old, John Lewis joined 12 other people to become Freedom Riders. The supreme Court had determined that racial segregation on interstate public transportation was unconstitutional, but various states continued to enforce segregation. The Freedom Riders, six blacks and 7 whites, sat together on a bus that traveled between Washington D.C. and New Orleans.
The Freedom Riders knew there would be consequences for occupying spaces that were reserved for whites only, but their intention was to resist the injustice of segregation peacefully.
“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.”John Lewis
The consequences were severe. John Lewis was sidelined in South Carolina after two white men beat him as he tried to enter a whites only waiting room. Weeks later, Lewis was beaten again in Alabama. The Freedom Riders soon came to understand that the police were not protecting them, but instead were assisting local chapters of the Ku Klux Klan to assault them. An angry mob armed with baseball bats, pipes, and chains would await the Freedom Riders at bus stations.
In Alabama, the mob was truly out of control. After leaving the Anniston bus station, Klansmen slashed the tires of the bus and threw a firebomb into it, hoping to burn the Freedom Riders to death. Barely able to escape, the Klansmen beat the Freedom Riders as they exited the burning bus.
It was not unusual for the beaten Freedom Riders, whether they were black or white, to be refused treatment at hospitals. The whole world saw the violence toward law abiding and peaceful citizens. People were listening and this emboldened the cause.
In 1965, John Lewis was again on the front page of history. In an example of how the more things change, the more they stay the same, John Lewis led a march that intended to proceed from from Selma, Alabama all the way to Montgomery. It was there, that the marchers hoped they would get answers from Governor George Wallace about how an Alabama State Trooper had come to fatally shoot unarmed Jimmie Lee Jackson. Jackson had been peacefully marching for voting rights.
Tensions were high, and the march to Montgomery was meant to keep the civil rights activists focused on their non-violence strategy so that they could continue their work. Governor George Wallace, however, decided to stop the march.
On March 7th, 1965, over 500 people began marching from Selma to Montgomery. When the marchers arrived at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers and a gang of white male locals who proceeded to tear gas and beat them. This event became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.
The assault on the marchers resulted in at least 67 people requiring treatment for their injuries. 17 people were hospitalized, including John Lewis, whose skull was fractured. People across the United States, and the world, saw televised images of the Alabama State Troopers, and other men brutalizing the peaceful marchers, and it is believed that this became a turning point in the civil rights movement.
As Dr King asserted, the non-violent resistance brought increased respect for the experiences of the black civil rights activists, and condemnation for the individuals and groups that resisted integration and voting rights for all people.
Two days later, the people marched again, this time led by Martin Luther King. Hundreds of citizens joined and the march swelled to about 2500 people. Called the “Turnaround March”, the marchers turned around at the bridge to ensure they would not break the terms of a restraining order. The march concluded without incident, but later that night, three white clergy members were targeted and beaten for their participation in the march. One of these men, Unitarian Universalist pastor James Reeb, was beaten to death by segregationists.
The 1960s were difficult days for black civil rights activists. Many of the same issues persist, such as police brutality, which disproportionately targets black men, and the suppression of the black vote. Institutionalized racism remains a burden. Worse, the counter-revolution is having a resurgence. These are hard times, too, but justice will prevail. Now, just like then, the counter revolution is on the wrong side of history.
In the end, John Lewis achieved many of his goals, and he did it with dignity and on his own terms. Perhaps he went to his reward pleased that so many people have filled the streets to speak up against police brutality.
“I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.”John Lewis in 1963
2015 marked the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Presidents Obama and Bush joined John Lewis in a celebration that re-enacted that first Selma to Montgomery march that ended in brutality.