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Let the courage and determination of John Lewis light our path forward

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is seen

 U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. in October 2007. Credit: AP/Lawrence Jackson

The last living voice to address the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom fell silent Friday night when Rep. John Lewis, 80, lost his battle with pancreatic cancer.

It’s tempting to say the nation will not see the likes of Lewis again, but this 17-term congressman who battled against discrimination for more than 60 years would not have accepted that. The need for giants like Lewis, humble and determined and dogged and courageous, fired by passion and tempered by pragmatism, persists, even as our older generation of giants succumbs.

One of 10 siblings born in rural Alabama to sharecroppers, Lewis often illustrated his early dedication to fighting racism by telling of how he and his kin were denied library cards in his hometown of Troy in 1956, as they were told the library was for whites only.

We were a nation that denied Blacks the right to read books their taxes helped purchase, and against this Lewis fought. We were a nation that denied Blacks the right to use public transportation freely, and in 1961 Lewis became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, determined to travel from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., in seats of their own choosing, assailed all along the route. We were a nation that denied Blacks the vote, so in 1963 Lewis, then president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, became one of the six main leaders of the March on Washington.

The next year, he helped begin the Freedom Rider movement to register voters in the Deep South that would culminate in “Bloody Sunday.” On March 7, 1965, Lewis led about 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where they were attacked by Alabama state troopers and a posse of deputized civilian white men.

There, Lewis was beaten and his skull fractured, leaving scars that, like his devotion to justice, would remain a visible testament to the power of peaceful protest for the rest of his life.

Eight days later, President Lyndon Johnson sent the Voting Rights Act to Congress and that August it became law.

Lewis always encouraged others to fight beside him, and today, with so much progress made and so much still needed, his words have never felt more necessary. He implored us: "Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

He instructed us: “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?’”

And he reminded us: "You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim or diminish your light."

By his own count, Lewis was arrested 45 times, the last one coming in 2013 as he fought for comprehensive immigration reform. His consistent dedication to fighting for all people, not just the ones who most resembled him, was astonishing. Lewis was outspoken in support of gay rights and gay marriage, which has not always been the case with civil rights lions of his era. And in recent years, Lewis spoke up to demand that the Black women who had worked so hard in the fight for equal rights for Black people get their due, saying in a 2016 interview on the movement: "I truly think and believe women were discriminated against. They did all of the work, they did the heavy lifting. They were kept back."  

Lewis was born into a nation rife with racial injustice, and he died in a nation torn apart by the continuing specter of systemic racism and police violence against Black men. He was always quick to demand that the difference between where the nation has been and where it is now on equality be acknowledged. But he never stopped fighting for progress. 

Reacting to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes while other officers did nothing, Lewis said watching the video made him weep as he asked himself how many more such men would have to be killed. But even then, Lewis' main message was one of hope as he took heart in the protests that followed Floyd's death, saying: “This feels and looks so different. It is so much more massive and all inclusive. To see people from all over the world taking to the streets, to the roadways, to stand up, to speak up, to speak out.”

He was never silent in the face of injustice. He never shrank from necessary trouble. And his light never dimmed.

The light of John Lewis can still illuminate our own paths. His memory can spark our own courage if we let it, creating an enduring tribute to a man who called for action and dreamed of justice.

— The editorial board