Titan of the American civil rights movement


Titan of the American civil rights movement

John Lewis, who has died aged 80, was a towering figure of the US civil rights movement, An “apostle of non-violence”, he was the last surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; he played a pivotal role in the March from Selma, in 1965, and later carried a “mantle of moral authority” into Congress. During his years of activism, he was beaten, spat upon and often arrested, but his commitment to the cause of racial justice never wavered.

John Lewis was born near Troy, Alabama in 1940 to parents who were sharecroppers. One of ten children, he grew up on the farm, and went to segregated schools. As a child he saw few white people, but he “knew enough to fear them”: soon after he was born, a local man had been lynched for calling a white policeman by his first name. At 16, he was denied entry to his local library; and when he reached his majority, he wasn’t able to vote, owing to the South’s racist Jim Crow laws and widespread intimidation. He’d always wanted to be a preacher; his activism was galvanised by listening Martin Luther King Jr’s sermons on the radio. In 1960, while a student at a Baptist seminary in Nashville, he organised sit-ins in protest at segregated food counters, he also made contact with King, who became his mentor. During one of these early protests, Lewis was attacked by a group of white men, then arrested for disorderly conduct. It was his first arrest, and he recalled it as a sort of baptism. “Now I had crossed over, I had stepped through the door into total, unquestioning commitment,” he said. He would go on to be arrested 45 times in six years for causing what he described as “good trouble, necessary trouble”.

In 1961, he was one of a small group of activists – seven black and six white – who took part in the first Freedom Ride, to protest against the fact that interstate bus services were still segregated in the South, in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling. For entering whitesonly spaces, the Riders experienced horrific violence: Lewis recalled that in Birmingham, a mob set on them with chains and pipes and baseball bats. In 1963, he was one of the “Big Six” of civil rights leaders who organised the March on Washington, where King gave his I Have a Dream speech; at 23, Lewis was its youngest keynote speaker. “We must say, ‘Wake up America,’” he told the crowd. “For we cannot stop, and we will not be patient.”

In March 1965, he led one of the marches from Selma. On hearing about the protest, the governor of Alabama had said: “I’m not gonna have a bunch of n*****s walking along a highway in this state.” And when the group reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of Selma, they were met by a phalanx of state troopers, who ordered them to disperse. Instead, they just stood in the road. Firing rounds of tear gas, the troopers then rushed forward, pushing the marchers over, and laying into them with whips and batons. Lewis was beaten unconscious. Caught on film, the incident – known as Bloody Sunday – shocked the nation, and spurred the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Devastated by the assassination of Dr King in 1968, Lewis decided to put his energy into backing Robert Kennedy’s presidential bid and was distraught when Kennedy was shot dead later that year. In the 1970s, Jimmy Carter asked him to run a federal volunteer agency. Encouraged by his wife, Lillian Miles, he became a councillor in Atlanta in 1981; and was elected to Congress in 1986. He served for 17 terms. At Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Lewis’s commemorative photograph of the event was signed by the president: “Because of you, John.” Suffering from pancreatic cancer, Lewis was unable to take part in the Black Lives Matter protests, but sent a message to its supporters: “You must be prepared to give until you cannot give any more.” Lillian died in 2012. Their son survives him.