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John Lewis: Drum Major for Justice

July 27, 2020 

          John Robert Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama. Imagine growing up in Alabama in the ‘40s. At the age of 11 John Lewis’ uncle took him on a trip to Buffalo, NY. This gave him a better perspective on the racism and segregation he had experienced in Troy.

         While a young man there were many experiences that helped shape his character. The Freedom Rides, John Lewis was one of the original thirteen, were a great influence. Being beaten was never a deterrent. John Lewis once said, “We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal. We knew our lives could be threatened, but we made up our minds not to turn back.” In addition, John Lewis was imprisoned for 40 days in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County, Mississippi after participating in a Freedom Rider activity.

         In 1963 John Lewis was elected to replace outgoing chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). His experience was already widely respected at the age of 23. His courage and tenacious adherence to the philosophy of reconciliation and nonviolence made him emerge as a leader. John Lewis was a very outspoken activist who believed that the 1963 Civil Rights Bill was “too little and too late”. He had written a speech denouncing the bill because it did not protect African Americans against police brutality or provide African Americans with the right to vote.

         As chairman of SNCC, John Lewis was named one of the “Big Six” leaders who were organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The other leaders were Martin Luther King Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); A. Philip Randolph, AFL-CIO V. President; Whitney Young, National Urban League; James Farmer, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Roy Wilkins, NAACP.  Lewis was the youngest to speak at the march.        

         John Lewis was beaten by Alabama State Troopers on March 7, 1965 after marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. His skull was fractured at what was to be known as “Bloody Sunday”. He bore the scars of beatings for peacefully protesting the treatment of African Americans in the United States. 

         U.S. Congressman John Lewis was tenacious as he worked for 15 years to finally get legislation passed to establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He was a strong voice for LGBTQ rights, immigration  and national health insurance. He once said, "We cannot keep turning our backs on gay and lesbian Americans.  I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation." I cannot share all of the accomplishments of his life, well lived, here. I cannot do John Lewis justice in these short remarks. However, I will ask and strongly encourage you to share his story with our youth. We all know African American history is not part of the curriculum taught in public schools in the United States. Each of us must work to change that. The whole story must be told. I again quote John Lewis, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

                Congressman John Robert Lewis attended and spoke at one of our earlier EWMC conferences. He challenged us then and he challenges us today, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”

                                                                                   Keith Edwards, EWMC President

Page Last Updated: Jul 27, 2020 (12:56:39)
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