SACRAMENTO – His blood literally helped bridge the gap of racial divide in America.Congressmember John Lewis died last Friday after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. The 80-year-old icon is being lauded for his decades of activism and service at the forefront of the civil rights movement.
Congressman Lewis was inspired by leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks to not only question why things were different for Blacks in America, but to stand up and work to change that reality. He was beaten and jailed for his effort, but never deterred from the goal.
He was a Freedom Rider, participating in sit-ins to fight Jim Crow laws and he chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966. At the age of 23, he was a keynote speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. In 1965, he and other peaceful demonstrators were attacked by White police officers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama that is now infamously known as Bloody Sunday. As a Democrat, Lewis spent more than three decades in the nation’s capital, serving as the U.S. representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District.
Lewis was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer during a routine medical visit last December.
“I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said in a statement at the time.
Lewis was respected as the “conscience of the U.S. Congress.”
“He was a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being. He dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America,” his family shared in a statement.
California/Hawaii NAACP State President Alice Huffman called Lewis “a man of honor.”
“He’s been in the movement all his life and he’s been beat up and battered and he hung in there for us. For those of us who care about him and his legacy that’s what it is — there’s no other person in the country who could touch him for what he has done,” shared Ms. Huffman, who was the first Black woman to chair the Democratic National Convention.
Ms. Huffman brought Congressman Lewis to Sacramento in 2016 when Hilary Clinton was vying for president against Republican candidate, Donald Trump and had the opportunity to engage with him during other local visits. In recent years Lewis was outspoken in his opposition to Trump and allegations that his election win was secured by Russian interference. People can help preserve Lewis’ legacy, Ms. Huffman says, helping oust the Republican president and shutting up his like-minded constituency.
“The fervor has to be greater than it was then, because Hillary didn’t make it,” she said. “We who are sitting on the sidelines looking on, we have to roll up our sleeves and get busy.”
Congresswoman Doris Matsui (CA-6) called Lewis one of America’s “brightest beacons of light.”
“He lived every single day to overcome injustice, eradicate racism, and give hope to all who walked beside him. At this moment in our history when speaking truth to power is so vital, it is more important than ever to follow John’s words, to ‘stand up, speak out, and keep your eyes on the prize.’ John was our moral compass, and now we must continue his work – our work – holding our country accountable to be the best version of itself,” Congresswoman Matsui said in a statement.
Congressman Ami Bera (CA-7) said Lewis showed the world the power of “good trouble” and was “a beacon of justice and freedom” on Twitter. He reflected how he and his wife, Janine, walked with Lewis for the 2019 Civil Rights Pilgrimage in Selma. He called it “a moment we will never forget.”
In a statement of her own, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) called Lewis “a hero and a giant.”
“We are grateful that John Lewis never lost sight of how great our country can be. He carried the baton of progress and justice to the very end. It now falls on us to pick it up and march on. We must never give up, never give in, and keep the faith,” said Senator Harris, who joined Lewis in Alabama this past March for the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
“I will always cherish the quiet conversations we shared together when he inspired me to fight for the ideals of our beloved country,” she said.
Dr. Eugene Spencer, a retired dentist and local activist who helped found the Greater Sacramento Urban League, said he too was inspired by Lewis. Dr. Spencer met Lewis at the March on Washington.
“He was quite young then,” Dr. Spencer recalled. “But relatively mature, because his thinking was so far in advance of most of the people his age.”
Dr. Spencer, a student at Howard University at the time, said he attended the march to support the leaders who were there and out of respect for his friend, Medgar Evers, who had been killed two months earlier by a White supremacist for his work to end segregation in Mississippi.
Dr. Spencer and Congressman Lewis had a reunion of sorts two years ago, when both men were invited by Alcorn State University’s president to watch a football bowl game against fellow HBCU, North Carolina A&T.
“I sat with him for almost two hours in the suite there and I was able to talk about the Washington march,” Dr. Spencer shared. “I was able to observe how unique he was in his conduct and I remember my son saying, ‘Congressman Lewis, thanks for your service.’ You know what his response was? ‘Just doing my job.’”
A new March on Washington is being planned for next month and was birthed out of the recent protests following the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“I think we need to do that,” Dr. Spencer said. “I think that young African Americans should be participating 100 percent. They should be planning to assist in getting people to vote and maybe after attending the march they will be energized to carry out their community responsibilities. I know when I went to the march and I left there I was all fired up and I was energized to do whatever it was that was necessary to bring about some changes.”
As the generation of leaders like Lewis are dying, Dr. Spencer says he’d like to see the younger generation respect their elder activists more and learn from the blueprint they laid out. A knee to the neck today isn’t much different from having a dog sicced on you or a hose turned on you back then, he said.
“When you think of John Lewis, C.T. Vivian and Rev. Lowery and what they did — they put their bodies on the line just for us to at least have some justice in this country.”
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer