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John Lewis

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One of the greatest Americans of his or any other generation has died:

Rep. John R. Lewis, the civil rights icon whose fight for racial justice began in the Jim Crow south and ended in the halls of Congress, died Friday night.

The Georgia lawmaker had been suffering from Stage IV pancreatic cancer since December. He was 80.

The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis served in Congress for more than three decades, pushing the causes he championed as an original Freedom Rider challenging segregation, discrimination and injustice in the Deep South – issues reverberating today in the Black Lives Matter movement.

He was an organizer of the March on Washington in 1963 along with Martin Luther King Jr., a seminal moment in the Civil Rights movement that led to the passage of voting rights for Blacks two years later.

He became a community activist and member of the Atlanta City Council before winning a seat in Congress in 1986. He would go on to become a best-selling author and was awarded the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president. Lewis was elected to his 17th term in November 2018.

This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.

In 1961, Lewis became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. There were seven whites and six blacks who were determined to ride from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans in an integrated fashion. At that time, several states of the old Confederacy still enforced laws prohibiting black and white riders from sitting next to each other on public transportation. The Freedom Ride, originated by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and revived by James Farmer and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was initiated to pressure the federal government to enforce the Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia (1960) that declared segregated interstate bus travel to be unconstitutional. The Freedom Rides also exposed the passivity of the government regarding violence against citizens of the country who were simply acting in accordance with the law.  The federal government had trusted the notoriously racist Alabama police to protect the Riders, but did nothing itself, except to have FBI agents take notes. The Kennedy Administration then called for a cooling-off period, a moratorium on Freedom Rides.

In the South, Lewis and other nonviolent Freedom Riders were beaten by angry mobs, arrested at times and taken to jail. At 21 years old, Lewis was the first of the Freedom Riders to be assaulted while in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He tried to enter a whites-only waiting room and two white men attacked him, injuring his face and kicking him in the ribs. Nevertheless, only two weeks later Lewis joined a Freedom Ride that was bound for Jackson. “We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal. We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back,” Lewis said recently in regard to his perseverance following the act of violence.  Lewis was also imprisoned for forty days in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County, Mississippi, after participating in a Freedom Riders activity in that state.

In an interview with CNN during the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Lewis recounted the sheer amount of violence he and the 12 other original Freedom Riders endured. In Birmingham, the Riders were mercilessly beaten, and in Montgomery, an angry mob met the bus, and Lewis was hit in the head with a wooden crate. “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious,” said Lewis, remembering the incident. When CORE gave up on the Freedom Ride because of the violence, Lewis and fellow activist Diane Nash arranged for the Nashville students to take it over and bring it to a successful conclusion.

In February 2009, forty-eight years after he had been bloodied by in a Greyhound station during a Freedom Ride, Lewis received an apology on national television from a white southerner, former Klansman Elwin Wilson.

Thanks to LGM commenters Joe Paulson and Davis X. Machina for citing these tweets.

[SL]:

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