“We must work together to make a way out of no way. #goodtrouble” was the last thing John Lewis tweeted Sunday, along with a picture of him speaking to a crowd at a rally.
The statement is one that the civil rights icon has lived by his entire life. Dubbed the last surviving member of “The Big Six” leaders from the Civil Rights movement, Lewis’ life epitomized walking history.
Born near Troy, Alabama, on February 21, 1940 to sharecropper parents, John Robert Lewis grew up in an era of segregation. He was particularly disappointed when the Supreme Court ruling in 1954’s Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka didn’t affect his school life. However, hearing Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons and news of the 1955- 56 Montgomery bus boycott inspired Lewis to act for the changes he wanted to see.
CIVIL RIGHTS STRUGGLE
In 1957, John Lewis left Alabama to attend the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. There, he learned about nonviolent protest and helped to organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. He was arrested during these demonstrations, which upset his mother, but Lewis was committed to the Civil Rights Movement and went on to participate in the Freedom Rides of 1961.
Freedom Riders challenged the segregated facilities they encountered at interstate bus terminals in the South, which had been deemed illegal by the Supreme Court. It was dangerous work that resulted in arrests and beatings for many involved, including Lewis.
In 1963, Lewis became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That same year, as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, he helped plan the March on Washington. Lewis—the youngest speaker at the event—had to alter his speech in order to please other organizers, but still delivered a powerful oration that declared, “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.”
After the March on Washington, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act became law. However, this did not make it easier for blacks to vote in the South. To bring attention to this struggle, Lewis and Hosea Williams led a march from Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965.
After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers were attacked by state troopers. Lewis was severely beaten once more, this time suffering a fractured skull. The violent attacks were recorded and disseminated throughout the country, and the images proved too powerful to ignore. “Bloody Sunday,” as the day was labeled, sped up the passage of 1965’s Voting Rights Act.
Lewis left the SNCC in 1966. Though devastated by the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy in 1968, Lewis continued his work to enfranchise minorities.
In 1970, he became director of the Voter Education Project. During his tenure, the VEP helped to register millions of minority voters.
Lewis ran for office himself in 1981, winning a seat on the Atlanta City Council. In 1986, he was elected to the House of Representatives. Today, representing Georgia’s 5th District, he is one of the most respected members of Congress.
Since entering office, he has called for healthcare reform, measures to fight poverty and improvements in education. Most importantly, he oversaw multiple renewals of the Voting Rights Act. When the Supreme Court struck down part of the law in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, Lewis decried the decision as a “dagger into the heart” of voting rights.
In the wake of the mass shooting that took place on June 12, 2016, in Orlando, Florida, Lewis led a sit-in comprised of approximately 40 House Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives on June 22 in an attempt to bring attention and force Congress to address gun violence by taking definitive legislative action.
“We have been too quiet for too long,” Lewis said. “There comes a time when you have to say some- thing. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet. This is the time.” The protest came just days after several measures including a bill regarding background checks and adding restrictions on the purchase of guns by people on the federal no-fly list, failed in the Senate.
Lewis also spoke out against the presidency of Donald Trump, who was elected on November 8, 2016. In an interview with Chuck Todd for NBC
News’ Meet the Press, which aired on January 15, Lewis said he didn’t believe Trump was a “legitimate president” because of Russian interference in the election. “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton,” Lewis said in the interview. He also said he would not attend Trump’s inauguration.
Trump responded on Twitter, criticizing Lewis’ work as a congressman and tweeting that Lewis was “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”
The president-elect’s attack on Lewis came just days before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and prompted vocal support of the civil rights icon across social media. Several Democratic lawmakers also joined in support of Lewis, and boycotted Trump’s inauguration.
Though the Supreme Court’s decision about the Voting Rights Act was a blow to Lewis, he has been encouraged by the progress that has occurred in his lifetime. After Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, Lewis said, “When we were organizing voter-registration drives, going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought – I never dreamed – of the possibility that an African American would one day be elected president of the United States.”