The NAACP is devastated by the passing of Congressman John Lewis, a giant in the Civil Rights Movement who carried the mantle in the continuing battle for civil rights and equal justice in our nation.
We are deeply saddened by his passing but profoundly grateful for the contributions he made in his lifetime. His life-long career of pushing this nation toward justice, fairness and liberty left a permanent impression on our nation and the world.
Lewis, 80, lived a life of courage. Despite experiencing more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries in the struggle for civil rights, he remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. Lewis dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil rights victories and building what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called "The Beloved Community.”
Born near Troy, Alabama, to sharecropper parents, Lewis jumped early into the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and never looked back. As a student at Fisk University, Lewis organized and participated in sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters across Nashville.
At age 21, Lewis helped to lead the Freedom Rides, where civil rights activists traveled throughout the South to test local compliance with a 1960 Supreme Court ruling desegregating bus facilities. Lewis was the first Freedom Rider to be assaulted when he tried to enter a whites-only waiting room in Rock Hill, South Carolina, only to be met by members of the Ku Klux Klan, who viciously beat the young activist.
But that didn’t stop Lewis. Two weeks later, he boarded a bus to Jackson, Mississippi, where he was arrested. He later recalled: “We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal. We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back.”
At age 23, Lewis became chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was considered one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. He was an architect of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the youngest speaker at the event, telling the massive crowd: “We all recognize the fact that if any radical, social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.”
In March 1965, 25-year-old Lewis and Hosea Williams helped to organize and lead over 600 peaceful protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to call national attention to the battle for voting rights. The marchers were met with brutal violence on the bridge by Alabama state troopers, who attacked them with batons, gun butts, electric cattle prods and tear gas. Lewis was severely beaten and suffered a broken skull. The state-sponsored violence against the marchers was displayed around the world and was too powerful to ignore. The day became known as Bloody Sunday and was the catalyst for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 later that year.
Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981 and has represented Georgia's 5th Congressional District in the U.S. Congress since 1986. He was re-elected 17 times. In Congress, Lewis was a fierce champion of expanding democracy and led the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006. When the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 ruling of Shelby County v. Holder, Lewis attacked the ruling as a “dagger into the heart” of voting rights. He led Congress’ effort to restore the Voting Rights Act, something it still has failed to do.
Lewis was a member of the House of Representatives’ influential Ways and Means Committee and chaired the Oversight subcommittee. The congressman served as senior chief deputy Democratic whip since 1991 and sat in direct line of succession to the number two Democratic leadership position in the House.
Lewis received numerous awards, including the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement and the prestigious Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
His autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, inspired a new generation of activists and a series of graphic novels about his role in the Civil Rights Movement won a National Book Award. Until the very end, Lewis fought for the right to vote and urged people across the nation to get into “good trouble.” He was a national treasure and a civil rights hero for the ages. Lewis used his every waking moment to push this country toward a more representative democracy and left behind a remarkable model to follow. It is up to us to pick up his mantle and carry on. As people of all colors are in the streets seeking racial justice, we urge you to speak a little louder and stay a little longer to honor the best warrior for democracy our nation has ever known.
"We cannot give up now. We cannot give in. We must keep the faith, keep our eyes on the prize. We must go out and vote like we never, never voted before.”
- Rep. John Lewis
If we know anything about our dear friend, he wanted us to continue the battle for full participation in democracy, which he began long ago with many other civil rights icons who have since passed away. On November 3, 2020 we must honor Lewis by casting our ballots and ensuring that our votes are counted, up and down the ballot.
The NAACP and its President and CEO Derrick Johnson are eternally grateful to have joined John Lewis as he appeared, despite his failing health, on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge last March to commemorate the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. In a tremendously moving moment, he urged the modern-day marchers to continue his fight: “I thought I was going to die on this bridge. But somehow and some way, God almighty kept me here. We cannot give up now. We cannot give in. We must keep the faith, keep our eyes on the prize. We must go out and vote like we never, never voted before.”