This article was updated on the 7th April 2021
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, died 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, to demand that African-American citizens be 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, then the 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 the troopers.
Ten days after the protestors in Selma were attacked, and two days after President Lyndon Johnson publicly endorsed universal suffrage, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced in the U.S. Senate, 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. As 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. At one point during the trip, 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 that allowed Lewis to succeed in dismantling the Jim Crow laws which existed across the United States.
In 1986, at the age of 46, John Lewis, still bearing the scars of Selma, was elected to serve as the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th District. In this position, Lewis continued to remain committed to realising the ideal of a society in which all individuals would receive equal treatment under the law.
Throughout his career in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lewis stood as a stalwart defender of the rights of all American’s. In addition to his repeated defences of the rights of African-Americans, the representative’s tenure in the U.S congress was also defined by his consistent and longstanding support for the rights of the LGBTQ community in the United States. In 1996, Lewis became one of the few politicians in the United States to voice support for the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and repeatedly supported legislation that sought 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.”
With discrimination on the basis of gender, sex, sexual orientation and, indeed, race continuing to pervade modern societies; learning from the words and actions of John Lewis is vital to ensuring that his vision of a just future is realised.