By Sean Yoes
AFRO Baltimore Editor
The word “icon” has been used for many years to describe Rep. John Lewis, known as “the conscience of the Congress,” who represented Georgia’s 5th District from 1987 until his death on July 17, at age 80.
And in the wake of his death the honorific of icon will surely be wielded often in remembrance of Lewis, the man who was beaten and bloodied on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, a seminal civil rights protest and violent attack on non-violent protesters known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Yet, I would argue the word icon feels a bit flimsy when searching for adjectives to describe Lewis and his remarkable odyssey. Of course he is an icon, a shining symbol of the American Civil Rights Movement. The image of him and his fellow freedom fighters being trampled and beaten by White Alabama law enforcement officers swinging batons, some wrapped in barbed wire and assaulting them with tear gas, is an historic image seared into the American narrative.
John Lewis (receiving a pen from President Lyndon Johnson) at the signing ceremony at the White House for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lewis died July 17, at age 80.
However, Lewis was so much more than that infamous beating on that bloody Alabama Sunday in 1965.
Lewis, born in Troy, Alabama February 21, 1940, seemed destined to get into what he called “good trouble” from the time he was a small boy. He has often told the story of how he grew up in Troy and he would see the infrastructure of Jim Crow; White waiting room, Colored waiting room, White restaurant, Colored take out back door, White water fountain, Colored water fountain.
Lewis said he would repeatedly ask his parents and other relatives the eternal question in regard to the separation of the races, why. And the answer was always some variation of the same theme: `that’s just the way it is boy, don’t get in trouble.’
“Rosa Parks and Dr. King inspired me to get in trouble, what I call good trouble, necessary trouble,” Lewis once said. “And I’ve been getting in trouble ever since.”
And over the decades Lewis did get into a lot of good trouble, sometimes with perilous, near death results. He was arrested at least 40 times, countless beatings, his skull was cracked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as he and his colleagues marched for voting rights. Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders and the youngest person at age 23, to address the historic original March on Washington in 1963.
Lewis, a fiery young orator and organizer worked in the trenches of the Movement and was also among the leadership when King and his acolytes traveled to the White House to join President Lyndon Baines Johnson for the signing ceremony of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
By 1987, Lewis moved from young civil rights warrior to Congressman when he took his seat in the House of Representatives for the 5th Legislative District in Georgia.
Yet, he maintained his fire from the Movement to the very end.
There he was on June 8, frail yet determined as ever, walking with a cane, infirm from his battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, strolling along the massive Black Lives Matter street painting on Pennsylvania Ave., leading to the White House in D.C. The official address of the White House is now 1600 Black Lives Matter Plaza.
As the current occupant of the White House moves feverishly to establish totalitarianism by dispatching federal thugs to Portland, Oregon, he is threatening to do so in cities like Chicago, New York and perhaps the city he hates the most, Baltimore. Although Donald John Trump toys with totalitarianism, the great Lewis faced it head on in the murderous deep South of the 1960’s and wore the physical scars of those encounters like badges of honor.
He is more than an icon, he was the embodiment of Black American resistance and resilience.
Lewis never grew weary of the fight, never tired of getting into “good trouble.”
And he most assuredly has earned his final earthly rest.
Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Baltimore editor and author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.