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Congressman John Lewis, Civil Rights Icon, dies at 80

January 2018 – the late Congressman John Lewis gave a rousing speech while in Houston attending a Criminal Justice forum aimed at improving the nation’s Criminal Justice System. Lewis emphasized the need to never use acts of violence to accomplish one’s goal. John Lewis said, “The best non-violent action we can take to correct the unfair Criminal Justice System is to VOTE! Vote like you’ve never voted before. Get everyone to VOTE!” (Photo by Allan Jamail)

By Allan Jamail

It was January 24, 2018 at the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Houston’s Fifth Ward. As a photojournalist for the North Channel Star, I got to meet Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. I was there covering the Criminal Justice Forum (CJF) spearheaded by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

The North Channel Star put on its front page my article and photos of Lewis and the CJF. You can still read the article by going to www.northchannelstar.com. (Search for “crime forum.”) Hundreds gathered at the church to hear Lewis’s speech. Here’s part of it:

“You must find a way to get in the way. You must find a way to get in trouble, good trouble, and necessary trouble.”

“I’ve been arrested about 50 times for getting into good trouble.”

“Use what you have to help make our country and make our world a better place, where no one will be left out or left behind… It is your time.”

After the event I made it a point to meet Lewis. I wanted to have a few words with him. As we shook hands and exchanged a few words, I told him he delivered a good speech. And I told him how I respected and admired him for his achievements and his relentless effort to make improvements in civil rights, voting rights and criminal justice reforms. I told him how I hoped my article would help his efforts; he thanked me. Before parting, I then told him I’d be praying for him, and he thanked me again.

Congressman Lewis served Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death Friday, July 17, 2020, at age 80. Known as a civil rights icon, he was one of the giants in the historic struggle for equal rights in America.

His death came seven months after his public announcement in late December 2019 after a routine examination he had been diagnosed with advanced stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He said then, “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”

Lewis, who was born on Feb. 21, 1940 to sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, attended segregated public schools, and gives credit to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s radio broadcasts, which inspired his work as an activist.

At 18, he wrote a letter to King, who responded by purchasing a round-trip bus ticket to Montgomery for Lewis so they could meet. “Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis,” he recalled saying to King. “And that was the beginning.” Lewis wasted no time organizing, quickly finding himself on the front lines of the civil rights movement.

As a student at Fisk University, he led numerous demonstrations in Nashville against racial segregation, including sit-ins at segregated lunch counters as part of the Nashville Sit-ins.

Starting in 1961, he took part in a series of demonstrations that became known as the Freedom Rides, in which he and other activists — Black and white — rode together in buses through the South to challenge the region’s lack of enforcing a Supreme Court ruling that deemed segregated public bus rides unconstitutional.

Upon stopping, the activists on these rides often were arrested or beaten, Lewis included. In his second-to-last tweet before his death, Lewis tweeted, “It was 59 years ago today I was released from Parchman Farm Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson, MS for using a so-called ‘white’ restroom during the Freedom Rides of 1961.”

And on March 7, 1965 in what would become known as “Bloody Sunday,” Lewis was in the process of leading hundreds of demonstrators in a march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery when they walked across The Edmund Pettus Bridge, which crosses the Alabama River in Selma.

They were greeted by a “sea of blue” of Alabama state troopers who beat and tear-gassed the demonstrators. One of those troopers fractured Lewis’s skull, scarring his head for the rest of his life. The troopers acts of violence helped make that demonstration a pivotal one in the fight for African-American suffrage. Often called “one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced,” Lewis dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he calls “The Beloved Community” in America. His dedication to the highest ethical standards and moral principles has won him the admiration of many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress.

This past Sunday, July 26th, a horse-drawn carriage carried Lewis’s casket, draped with the United States flag, across the same Edmund Pettus Bridge for the last time.

On Sunday, Lewis’s body lay in state in the Alabama state capitol. On Monday, his body arrived in the nation’s Capitol Rotunda to lie in state. On Thursday, it will make its final stop at a private funeral service in Atlanta, Georgia.

President Barack Obama in 2011 awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime of advocacy and activism.

During that February ceremony, Obama said of Lewis: “And generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind — an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”