A special non-partisan message from the LWVSC Director for Social and Racial Justice, Patricia Felton-Montgomery, Ed. D. for a great American hero.
HOMAGE TO JOHN LEWIS
July 18, 2020
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Just one week after being appointed to the South Carolina League of Women Voters Board of Directors, I did not think that I would start this Saturday morning with tears streaming down my face upon hearing that the Honorable John Lewis had died while I slept peacefully. I also, however, slept fitfully at times because of concerns over the great crises here in the United States --- COVID19 and people refusing to wear masks for their health and that of others, the entire healthcare system of our nation being overwhelmed because it was broken for many even before the pandemic, the economy, the reappearance of white supremacy groups, the technology divide among school-age students in our urban and rural areas . . . --- and the lack of leadership and caring about our fellow citizens that I have been seeing at local, state, and national levels for too long now.
Today, many descriptive words have been used to remind us all of one of the greatest human beings that ever lived, John Lewis. Some think of him as a titan, others as one of the major civil rights leaders of our time, and still others as the most Honorable member of the House of Representatives because he was the “conscience of Congress.” But most of all he was a man of integrity, great moral fiber, and the strength to stand up for his beliefs in democracy and the foundations of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, ideals that for many this country has still not lived up to. The type of leader that is most needed now. The kind of leader that Shirley Chisholm reminded us is always needed in a democracy if it is to survive, leaders who are “unbought and unbossed.”
John Lewis was that type of scarce leader who even at the tender age of 21 was willing to be one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, the brave group who were determined to ride buses from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans to pressure the federal government to enforce the 1960 Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia. That decision had declared segregated interstate bus travel to be unconstitutional. Because of his commitment to our democracy’s Constitutional laws, he was beaten by angry mobs, arrested at times, and taken to jail. In Birmingham, the Riders were beaten with baseball bats, chains, lead pipes, and stones. They reorganized and rode to Montgomery, where they were met with more violence, and Lewis was hit in the head with a wooden crate. "It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious," said Lewis, remembering the incident. Lewis was the first of the Freedom Riders to be assaulted in Rock Hill in our own state of South Carolina.
Yes, his commitment to the Freedom Rides and the desegregation of public transportation was a dangerous one in 1961, but he would not have been remembered in death for these unusual acts of courage if he had not gone on to live out, through additional acts of courage for nearly 60 years, his belief in human rights and the necessity of creating a just American society for all:
- As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he led SNCC in opening Freedom Schools and helped launch the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and he organized some of the voter registration efforts during the 1965 Selma voting rights campaign;
- He was one of the “Big Six” organizers of the 1963 March on Washington;
- Lewis was upfront in leading over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama where the police discharged tear gas and mounted troopers charged the demonstrators, beating them with nightsticks. Lewis's skull was fractured and, as a result, he bore scars on his head from the incident for the rest of his life;
- He was director of the Voter Education Project (VEP) during the 1973–1975 recession; the VEP added nearly four million minority voters to the rolls under his leadership;
- He was an early and staunch opponent of the Iraq War;
- He was one of eight U.S. Representatives, from six states, arrested while holding a sit-in at the U.S. Capitol building to advocate for immigration reform;
- In 1988, Lewis introduced a bill to create a national African American museum in Washington every year for 15 years; it was blocked in the Senate, but by 2003 he had gained bi-partisan support, and in 2003 President George W. Bush signed the bill to establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and
- He also led the 2016 House Democrats sit-in demanding that the House take action on gun control in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting and the failure of the United States Senate to act.
The hundreds of awards, medals, and honorary degrees he received during his lifetime are testaments to these and other acts of the unfearful leadership for which he Is remembered today.