In his memoir, Lewis said Alabama’s “Bloody Sunday” was a strange day from the start. “It was dark and subdued, almost like a funeral procession,” he writes in “Walking With the Wind” of the march he led with Hosea Williams. “There were no big names at the front, no celebrities. They were just ordinary people moving through the streets of Selma. “
Calling him a “personal hero,” Senator John McCain described Lewis’s actions that day as exemplary of America’s most fundamental dreams. “In America we’ve always believed that if the day was a bummer, we would win tomorrow,” McCain wrote in The Restless Wave in 2018. “That’s what John Lewis believed when he crossed that bridge.
Images of that day’s beatings in Alabama prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to act on civil rights legislation. “Something about that day in Selma touched a deeper nerve than anything that had happened before,” Lewis later wrote.
After Selma and over the months, the SNCC became more militant. The organization grew to reflect the disappointment of those who saw progress as too slow. “Something was born in Selma, but something died there too,” Lewis wrote in “Walking With the Wind”. “The road to non-violence was practically exhausted.” (King’s assassination in 1968 was another devastating blow against those who advocated non-violence.)
In 1966, Lewis lost the presidency to Stokely Carmichael, champion of the slogan “Black Power”. “My life, my identity, most of my very existence, was linked to SNCC,” recalls Lewis in “Walking With the Wind”. “Now so suddenly I felt like I was grazing. “
In 1968 he worked on the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. On the evening of California Primary, he was campaigning at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Kennedy was shot and killed by Sirhan Sirhan.
Lewis moved to the Voter Education Project in 1970, and in 1977 took his first steps against electoral politics, running unsuccessfully for a House seat in Georgia.
After a stint on Atlanta City Council, he tried again for the House in 1986 and won, edging out fellow activist Julian Bond. He remained in the House after that, a staunch Democratic supporter, but one who said his mission never changed.
“My primary duty,” wrote Lewis in 1998, “as I have stated in this campaign of 1986 and of each campaign since then, has been to defend and apply to all of our society the principles which formed the foundation of the movement to which I devoted. My whole life. “
Lewis spent years pushing for a national museum of African American history and culture in Washington, introducing legislation every year until its final adoption in 2003. “Abandoning dreams is not an option for me ”He wrote when the museum opened in 2016.
Although little author of major legislation, certain problems attracted his eloquence. In March 2010, in the final stages of the heated debate on the affordable care law, he fought for its adoption. “This is perhaps the most important vote that we have cast as members of this body,” said Lewis. “We have a moral obligation today, tonight, to make health care a right, not a privilege. “
In 2016, he was one of the leaders of a unique sit-in in the House in support of gun safety legislation. “Give us a vote. Let’s vote. We have come here to do our job, ”he said. (The sit-in failed.)
Over time, he became the living embodiment of the civil rights movement.
He has received numerous accolades: a Lincoln Medal from Ford’s Theater, a Preservation Hero Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center, a Dole Leadership Prize nominated for Bob Dole, and a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for life achievement, among others. Stephan James portrayed him in the 2014 film “Selma”. The universities have showered him with honorary degrees. In 2016, the US Navy announced that it was giving its name to a ship, a supply tanker.
During his congressional career, Lewis often led bipartisan delegations of lawmakers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to reenact the Bloody Sunday March. These members left the trips promising to work for a more equitable society, which Lewis satisfied.
In 2013, he launched a trilogy called “March,” graphic novels written with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell that recounted the first decades of his life. In 2016, the third installment became the first graphic novel to win a National Book Award. “I grew up in rural Alabama – very, very poor with very few books at home,” said Lewis accepting the award.
The “March” books used Obama’s inauguration as a framing device. Lewis was originally a supporter of Hillary Clinton in 2008, but the election of Obama put the spotlight on Lewis. The new president signed him a photo: “Because of you, John. “
The Trump years were different. Lewis had previously argued with Republicans – even calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush – but the jousting with Trump quickly escalated. Saying he did not believe Trump was “a legitimate president,” Lewis announced that he would not attend the inauguration.
Trump responded on Twitter. “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time repairing and helping his district, which is in horrible and collapsing state (not to mention infested crimes) rather than falsely complaining about election results . All speak, speak, speak – no action or result. Sad! “, He said.
Lewis remained a prominent enemy of Trump. “I think he’s racist,” Lewis said of the president in January 2018.
Lewis’ diagnosis of cancer in late 2019 led to a wave of support. “There is no bigger resolution for New Years, and it starts now: pray for John Lewis,” tweeted Scott Simon of NPR. Obama tweeted that day, “If there’s one thing I like about @RepJohnLewis, it’s its incomparable drive to fight. I know he has a lot more in him. “
In 2009, Lewis met a white man named Elwin Wilson, who was among those who assaulted Lewis and other Freedom Riders in 1961. After Obama was elected in 2008, Wilson said he had a revelation and traveled to Washington to apologize for his acts of violence and seek Lewis’s forgiveness. Lewis gave it freely.
“It’s in keeping with the philosophy of non-violence,” Lewis later told The New York Times. “This is what the movement has always been, having the capacity to forgive and move towards reconciliation.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this article.