A lion of the Civil Rights movement

York Dispatch Editorial Board
FILE - In this Jan. 11, 2017 file photo, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington at the confirmation hearing for Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lewis says he’s doesn’t consider Donald Trump a “legitimate president,” blaming the Russians for helping the Republican win the White House. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

From the earliest days of the Civil Rights movement to the most challenging days of the current administration, Rep. John Lewis has been a prominent and forceful voice on the national stage — for equality, for justice, for fairness and for reason.

His longevity has made it easy — too easy — to take for granted how truly remarkable his life of public service and personal sacrifice has been.

Lewis grew up in Troy, Alabama, less than hour’s bus ride from Montgomery — a bus ride he and his family refused to take during the 1955-56 boycott that brought a previously little-known preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to national prominence.

Lewis met King a few years later and the two worked together to change a nation. Lewis was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders — an integrated group that attempted to travel by interstate bus through the then-segregated South. He was badly beaten in South Carolina. It would not be the last time he shed blood for the cause. Nor would it deter him; he was back aboard another bus two weeks later.

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Lewis was just 23 when he was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963, making him one of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement during its most tumultuous and consequential period. As such, he was one of the “Big Six” architects of the 1963 March on Washington — and the youngest to speak at the event.

He was bloodied again — grievously — less than two years later as he led some 600 protesters in the infamous march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. On March 7, “Bloody Sunday,” the marchers were set upon by a mob of police officers at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma and badly beaten. A bloodied Lewis, his skull fractured, implored President Johnson in a television interview that day to intervene.

Johnson did just that within the year — he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that August. Lewis was among those looking on.

Simply put, Lewis’s role in the Civil Rights movement cannot be understated. And it was only Act I in his storied career.

After serving in the Carter administration and on the Atlanta City Council, Lewis was elected to Congress in 1986 with 75 percent of the vote in his northern Atlanta district. He has been reelected to represent Georgia’s 5th District 16 times since then — only three times dipping (slightly) below that winning margin.

His battles in Congress have been less physical but no less pivotal. He has fought for affordable health care, environmental protections, programs to support those in poverty, and always — always — civil rights and liberties.

His voice has neither wavered nor weakened, from leading a sit-in on the House floor for gun-violence legislation to just last month challenging his fellow House members to put country before party in weighing President Donald Trump’s transgressions in the impeachment vote. Not for nothing is widely known as “the Conscience of Congress.”

Lewis is a rarity: A Civil Rights icon who extended his activities into the 21st Century and his influence into the halls of Congress; a proud liberal from the deep-red south; a consistent, committed congressman whose positions do not change based political whim or personal interest.

But, again, his longevity obscures his record. We don’t look back when Lewis is with us, looking ahead.

That longevity, now, has been challenged. Lewis last month announced that he has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

“I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life,” he said, “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”

For all of its complications and occasional backsliding on the tenets he fights for — “freedom, equality, basic human rights” — the America John Lewis serves today is a better place than the one he was born into. May he continue to serve it for a long time to come.