Tributes from local lawmakers at various levels of government have been pouring in for John Lewis — the longtime Georgia Congressman who was a constant presence in the modern civil rights struggle. Lewis died on July 17 from pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old.
As a college student in Nashville, Lewis helped organize the sit-ins that prompted local officials to desegregate lunch counters. From there, he joined the Freedom Riders on life-threatening bus trips across the country that helped pave the way for the effective desegregation of interstate travel. As a 23-year-old leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was among the “Big Six” organizational leaders who planned the March on Washington in 1963.
“We’re tired of being beaten by policemen. We’re tired of seeing our people locked up in jails over and over again, and then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom, and we want it now,” Lewis exclaimed in his speech at the historic demonstration — a speech that he was asked to tone down by other organizers who thought his original draft was too radical.
“By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation,” he said that day in 1963.
Lewis was perhaps most famous for risking his life on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., during a demonstration on March 7, 1965. Lewis and Hosea Williams, another civil rights activist, led more than 600 people across the bridge before Alabama State Troopers, in an attempt to disperse the crowd, began tear gassing and beating the marchers.
The grainy, monochromatic image of Lewis getting hit over the head by a trooper is one of the most iconic images of the modern civil rights movement and helped pave the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year. Lewis sustained a fractured skull from that day and scarring on his head that stayed with him until his death.
After Lewis died on Friday, leaders from around the world — and across Proviso Township — offered tributes to the congressman, who was first elected to the U.S. House in 1987. In a statement, former President Barack Obama lauded Lewis for his “gentleness and humility.” Obama said the congressman’s “life was exceptional. But he never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country might do.”
Congressman Danny K. Davis (7th) served on the Ways and Means Committee with Lewis. During a phone interview on July 19, Davis remembered his colleague’s “unpretentious” and easy-going demeanor.
“John was easy to get along with and easy to deal with,” Davis said. “He never got too carried away with himself and who he was. He was a very common, decent guy. Just the essence of decency. The essence of honesty. The essence of integrity. The essence of virtue.”
“We lost a giant in the fight for civil rights,” explained Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (4th) in a statement. “Congressman John Lewis unapologetically and fiercely fought for the rights of Black people and every marginalized population in our country. He carried on the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King first manifested in 1963 to his dying day, and we have to continue to carry that vision until it is reality.”
“I once stood in a long line to hear Congressman John Lewis speak in Springfield, Illinois,” wrote state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch in a Facebook post. “I got lucky enough to sit in the front row, and I was glued to his every word. He was so inspiring to elected officials like me because listening to him you knew he loved everyone and everything.”
Lewis may have been easy going, but he was also a serious, fearless political brawler who didn’t shy from a fight. The congressman often reminded audiences during his multitude of speeches and appearances that he was arrested more than 40 times as an activist and five more times after becoming a congressman.
“I remember when we did that sit-in on the floor of the House,” recalled Davis, referencing the 2016 demonstration that Lewis helped lead in order to push for gun control. “We couldn’t get Republicans to do anything on gun control. They just wouldn’t. So somebody mentioned something about maybe sitting on the floor, which was against the House rules.
“And John said, ‘Sometimes, you have to get in trouble and break the rules,'” Davis said. “But it’s ‘good trouble.’ That was one of his favorite expressions. ‘Get in the way, get in good trouble, make trouble. Make things uncomfortable for the opposition.’ And that was John.”