REMEMBERING JOHN LEWIS

The world has lost a hero. Civil rights icon John Lewis passed away on Friday evening after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old. 

“I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said in a statement last December announcing his diagnosis. “I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community. We still have many bridges to cross.”

Dedicating his life to the fight for racial equality, John worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr before becoming a congressman in 1987. He was one of the original Freedom Riders (civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the Jim Crow South to protest segregation); was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 (that was the event where King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech); served as the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (the principal channel of student commitment to the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s); and led the Selma to Montgomery Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, where his skull was fractured after being beaten by law enforcement. Forty-five arrests and 55 years later, he was still fighting for equality and an end to systematic racism in his tenure in the House of Representatives, staging sit-ins demanding gun control, advocating for immigration reform, and making an annual pilgrimage to retrace his steps across that famous bridge. In 2011, John was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, who called John the “conscience of the United States Congress”, for his unwavering commitment to justice.

IMAGE: ALABAMA STATE TROOPERS ATTACK CIVIL RIGHTS DEMONSTRATORS IN SELMA, ALABAMA ON BLOODY SUNDAY, 7 MARCH 1965.

 

Since his passing, a petition to change the name of the Pettus bridge to memorialise John has gathered almost half a million signatures. It’s currently named after a slaveholding member of the Confederate Army who was also a leader in the Klu Klux Klan.

Tributes for the civil rights hero have flooded social media, Obama and Oprah Winfrey among the celebrities and public figures making powerful statements about his legacy. 

“America is a constant work in progress,” Obama wrote in a statement on his passing. “What gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further — to speak out for what’s right, to challenge an unjust status quo, and to imagine a better world.

“John Lewis… not only assumed that responsibility, he made it his life’s work. He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise. And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.”

To commemorate the life and work of John, we’ve compiled a few of his legendary quotes. Here’s to making noise and getting in good, necessary trouble. 

IMAGE: MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM, 28 AUGUST 1963.

 

“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again.”

— March on Washington speech, 28 August 1963. 

 

 

“Faith is being so sure of what the spirit has whispered in your heart that your belief in its eventuality is unshakable.”

— 2017 memoir: Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America.

 

“Selma is a place where we injected something very meaningful into our democracy. We opened up the political process and made it possible for hundreds and thousands and millions of people to come in and be participants.”

— Speaking about Bloody Sunday, 11 December 2014.

 

“Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”

— 2017 memoir: Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America.

 

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone – any person or any force – dampen, dim or diminish your light. Study the path of others to make your way easier and more abundant.”

– 2017 memoir: Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America.

 

IMAGE: LEADERS OF THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON SPEAK TO THE MEDIA AFTER MEETING WITH PRESIDENT KENNEDY.

 

“We have been too quiet for too long. There comes a time when you have to say something. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet. This is the time.”

– Congress sit-in following the Pulse nightclub shooting, 22 June 2016.

 

“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”

– Remarks in the House on impeachment of President Donald Trump, 18 December 2019.

When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.

 

“When I look out over this diverse crowd and survey the guests on this platform, it seems to realise what Otis Redding sang about and what Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about: this moment in our history has been a long time coming. But a change has come. We are standing here in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln, 150 years after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and only 50 years after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. We have come a great distance in this country in the 50 years, but we still have a great distance to go before we fulfil the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. Sometimes I hear people saying, ‘Nothing has changed.’ But for someone who grew up the way I grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress makes me want to tell them, ‘Come and walk in my shoes.’”

— March on Washington, 50th Anniversary, 28 August 2013.

 

 

“This is unreal. This is unbelievable. Some of you know I grew up in rural Alabama, very, very poor. Very few books in our home. I remember in 1956 when I was 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and cousins went down to the public library trying to get library cards and we were told that the library was for whites only and not for coloreds. And to come here and receive this award, this honor. It’s too much. I had a wonderful teacher in elementary school who told me, ‘Read my child, read.’ And I tried to read everything. I love books.”

— National Book Awards Ceremony, 16 November 2016.  

 

Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.


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