Our Conscience: John Lewis Dies

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At the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. AP photo

John Lewis - sharecroppers' son, civil rights icon, maker of good trouble, indefatigable "conscience of the Congress" who for 60 years strove to "redeem the soul of America" - has died of pancreatic cancer at 80. Until the end, Lewis held fast to his fierce moral clarity and determination to forge a "beloved community" of racial, social, economic equality. "God has welcomed John Lewis home,” said fellow Georgian Stacey Abrams. “Defender of justice. Champion of right. Our conscience, he was a griot of this modern age, one who saw its hatred but fought ever towards the light." As one of ten children of Alabama sharecroppers, he at first wanted to be a preacher; he once described assembling the family's chickens and reciting Bible verses to them. But history awaited him: He met Martin Luther King when he was 18, spent his 21st birthday in jail for protesting a segregated theater, helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and was almost beaten to death while riding through the South on the 1961 Freedom Rides. Less than two weeks ago, he proudly posted his young mugshot from that era on Twitter with, "59 years ago today I was released from Parchman Farm Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson, MS for using a so-called 'white' restroom." At 23, he was one of six civil rights leaders who helped Martin Luther King plan 1963's March on Washington, where he spoke with passion and urgency: “To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we must say...'We cannot be patient...We want our freedom, and we want it now.”

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He went on to serve 17 terms in Congress representing Georgia while continuing to march and speak out for gun control, gender equality, immigrants' rights; a "fighter for justice" who "lived the life he spoke of" till the end, he made his last public appearance about a month ago when he joined Black Lives Matter protesters in the streets of D.C. He came honestly by his insistence that Americans must "get into good trouble, necessary trouble" to make change: He was arrested over 40 times, and probably the most famous image of him is as a young man, on his knees in a trench coat, as southern police beat him and others trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They fractured his skull, but he survived; days after Bloody Sunday, Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act. In perfectly poignant timing, a new documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, was just released: In it, Lewis recalls a sort of jubilation he felt facing off against the brutality:  "I lost all sense of fear, really. When you lose your sense of fear, you're free." And so he remained, even through the death of his longtime wife Lillian in 2012, always asking, "If not us, then who? If not now, then when?" Word of his death brought an outpouring of grief and tributes. "The news hits deep. And to the core," wrote Dan Rather. "He had strength, courage, and heart enough for many lifetimes. So much distance traveled. So much further to go. Farewell my friend. We shall overcome someday." From Bernice King, "Farewell, sir. You did, indeed, fight the good fight and get into a lot of good trouble... Thank you. Take your rest." May his memory be a blessing.

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone—any person or any force—dampen, dim or diminish your light. Study the path of others to make your way easier and more abundant. Lean toward the whispers of your own heart, discover the universal truth, and follow its dictates. […] Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won. Choose confrontation wisely, but when it is your time don't be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice. And if you follow your truth down the road to peace and the affirmation of love, if you shine like a beacon for all to see, then the poetry of all the great dreamers and philosophers is yours to manifest in a nation, a world community, and a Beloved Community that is finally at peace with itself.”

John Lewis
1940-2020

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Two recent portraits of Lewis by Jonathan Purvis
 

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