John Lewis was a civil rights leader and activist that fought to end racial segregation in the United States. His achievements as a grassroots organizer that inspired many should be celebrated and honored. And we should also remember that it was his activism during the Civil Rights Movement, rather than his time in the U.S. government, that helped create change for Black Americans. While he passed away on July 17, 2020, his legacy of bravery and determination in the face of violent injustice lives on.
As a young boy in segregated Alabama public schools, Lewis was inspired by the activism around the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, and found resonance in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a student at Fisk University, Lewis staged sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters, resulting in multiple arrests and jail time. Soon after, he volunteered to be one of the first Freedom Riders – activists that rode on interstate buses in the South in mixed racial groups to protest the laws that enforced segregated seating. These nonviolent activists were often beaten by angry mobs, arrested, or jailed.
During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Co-founded by Lewis, SNCC was a civil rights group that organized Freedom Rides and sit-ins, working to empower Black communities. As chairman, he planned a speech for the March on Washington denouncing the 1963 Civil Rights Bill for not protecting African Americans against police brutality or allowing Black people to vote, citing the bill as “too little and too late.” Other organizers of the march asked Lewis to tone down the speech, as an effort to reign in the increasing radicalization of SNCC. His new speech instead offered reserved support for the bill, leaving out calls for revolution in favor of appeals for respect from the political leadership of the country. Beginning with “We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all,” the speech was still ferocious and iconic.
Because the Civil Rights Bill failed to grant equal voting access, Lewis also helped organize a march for voting rights in Selma, where he and other marchers were met with brutality from heavily armed state and local police. He sustained a skull fracture from police, and later admitted this was how he thought he would die. Lewis survived this “Blood Sunday,” and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law soon after.
The civil rights leader left SNCC in 1966, as the organization was adopting more radical stances and moving away from nonviolence. This came as a result of the Democratic Party in Mississippi refusing to oust their own candidates to allow the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic delegates. The Democratic Party was refusing the entry of Black folks into electoral politics, and SNCC activists were beginning to see that even though they “played by the rules,” they still weren’t political equals. This helped give rise to the idea that the period for non-violent protests was over.
Lewis continued to adhere to his nonviolent stance, and instead focused his efforts on increasing Black engagement in electoral politics. He eventually went into these politics himself, winning a seat on the Atlanta City Council in 1981, and getting elected to the House of Representatives in 1986. While in office, he called for healthcare reform, as well as measures to fight poverty and create improvements in education. However, without the backing of a movement, such as existed when he was engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, these reforms have found little traction in Congress. And this lack of progress has little to do with Lewis’ efficacy, morality, or determination in Congress. It’s rather that social progress happens not in a voting booth or through the willpower of U.S. legislators, but through movements and collective determination in the streets. This is the way we can make meaningful change.
And in remembering John Lewis, we can be reminded of the role activism plays in social progress. Politicians don’t improve the lives of working people. Everyday people, organized and exercising their collective power, make change. Lewis contributed more to social progress in less than ten years as an organizer, than in his nearly 30 years in Congress. And changing the society we live in today is going to take the same determination and courage as exhibited by Civil Rights activists, directing that energy at the system that continues to exploit Black and working people.