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On August 28, 1963; a young, spirited John Lewis stepped up to the microphone at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Only 23 and the youngest of the “Big Six” organizers for the March on Washington, the Alabama native unpacked a series of truths that permeated the hearts and minds of the massive crowd in attendance. The march and rally drew in over a quarter of a million people (and over 3,000 members of the press) from all across the nation in pursuit of civil and economic justice for Black Americans. It was an unprecedented moment in American history — one that would become the zeitgeist of the civil rights era.
Yet Lewis, at the time attending Fisk University and being the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), refused to settle for symbolism. He was already mapping out the blueprint for future governance rooted in accountability and nuanced policies instead of platitudes. Lewis firmly criticized John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill which would later be known as the “Civil Rights Act of 1964.” He believed the bill was an ineffective remedy to a rapidly escalating crisis.
In the original draft of his March on Washington speech, he rejected the bill, regarding it as “too little, too late.” It was like placing a bandaid over a bullet wound. Lewis acknowledged holes in the bill that did nothing to shield women, children, and peaceful protesters from police brutality. Officers were notorious for turning their dogs loose on Black demonstrators and violently spraying them down with industrial strength water hoses — an affront to their dignity and a clear violation of their basic human rights.
He planned to lambaste the Kennedy administration for its lack of attention to the militarized police state of the south, voter suppression resulting in violence and death, the exploitation of domestic workers, and scores of innocent Black men who were arrested on trumped up charges and sentenced to death.
As Lewis expressed in his draft, America was “still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromises, and ally themselves with open forms of political, social, and economic exploitation.” Revved up, ready to go, and looking forward to mobilizing demonstrators with his unapologetic analysis of the socio-political climate, Lewis was prepared to take the stage. Unfortunately, the night before the March on Washington, his speech was leaked to the press. Several organizers and advisors for the march called an emergency meeting and pressured him into scrapping select sections of his speech that could present negative optics for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and A. Philip Randolph.
He was never one to mince words, and was the unflinching radical mind of his cohort, but Lewis obliged because of his respect for the movement, and his deep admiration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1955, at only 15 years old, he heard MLK for the first time over a radio broadcast. The host and Dr. King discussed Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Black America’s demand for equality despite growing racial tensions. MLK’s vision energized the teenage son of sharecroppers and inspired him to enlist in the good fight, which unlocked political ambitions that cemented his path into social justice.
Rather than double down on his fiery passage vowing to “burn Jim Crow to the ground,” and “fragment the south into a thousand pieces,” he softened up his speech, solemnly committing to “marching through the south in the spirit of love and in the spirit of dignity.”
Flexible in the framing of his message, there was one aspect of Lewis’ activism he wouldn’t budge on; a refusal to subscribe to complacency informed by the notion that liberation takes time. He rejected the idea that Black people should hurry up and wait, while settling for the crumbs that fall from the table of progress. In his own words, “We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now!”
Lewis understood something leaders of the past and even of our present fail to grasp. Gradualism is an impediment to Black liberation, and a rapid accelerator of White supremacy. His brand of activism was unique in that he possessed an unconventional imagination, free from the ensnarement of respectability politics—with an acute knowledge of the political landscape and how to navigate it. He understood that conflict was a necessary component of progress and tackled it head on.
White supremacy is the rapacious bully on the schoolyard who brutalizes us and takes our lunch money—leaving us hungry for justice; and socially, economically, and spiritually malnourished. If we fight back, we stand a chance at winning. But if not, we will inevitably pay the price. Lewis was a risk-taker who wasn’t afraid to take it to the doorstep of the American establishment with the same audaciousness as its henchmen who burned crosses in the front yards of Black families all across America.
One of the most notable examples of his fearlessness took place on what’s now known as “Bloody Sunday.” On March 7, 1965; Lewis and activist Hosea Williams organized 600 peaceful protesters to march from Selma to Montgomery in advocacy of Black voting rights. Although Black men could legally vote after the civil war in 1870, the KKK and the police frequently terrorized — even murdered — Black men attempting to register to vote. That Sunday, as Lewis and Williams led the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by Alabama state troopers on horseback who assaulted demonstrators with billy clubs, bullwhips, and teargas.
Five months later, after the dust had settled, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the “Voting Rights Act of 1965” into law as a form of mild reparations for the bloodshed endured by peaceful demonstrators and the murder of a 26-year-old deacon named Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot in the stomach by police while trying to stop them from beating his mother and grandfather.
Lewis’ fight didn’t end once Black voting rights were secured. He also fought to earn the votes of his fellow Georgians. An acclaimed civil rights icon and trusted community member, in 1986 he was elected to Congress, where he served for over 30 years. Most politicians or public figures of his status would put their feet up, bask in their political power, and relish the glory of their legacy—but not him. You can take the congressman out of the trenches, but you can’t take the trenches out of the congressman. In the 1960s alone, Lewis was arrested forty times for protesting and at least five times while serving in Congress.
Prominent activists of our day would stand to benefit by embracing his indomitable blueprint on how to affect change. There’s a common debate that constantly brews amongst activists throughout the country, as to what strategy is most effective in achieving liberation. Some believe our political system is broken and that we shouldn’t bother trying to fix the problem with the problem—forgoing the right to vote. While others believe the system is functioning exactly the way it was designed to, which is why it’s important to engage in political participation and dismantle the system from the inside, reform it, vote and run for office.
John Lewis did all of the above, which made him the people’s champion, and he’ll be remembered as such. He didn’t wait for justice to greet him at the front door. He attempted to access it through the windows, side door, back door, and even the chimney. May memories of his courage and dedication keep us steadfast in our convictions. As Lewis said, in one of his most memorable quotes, “My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just... say something, do something! Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble!”