People paid great heed to John Lewis for much of his life in the civil rights movement. But at the very beginning — when he was just a kid wanting to be a minister someday — his audience didn’t care much for what he had to say.

A son of Alabama sharecroppers, the young Lewis first preached moral righteousness to his family’s chickens. His place in the vanguard of the 1960s campaign for Black equality had its roots in that hardscrabble Alabama farm and all those clucks.

Lewis, who died Friday at age 80, was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists who organized the 1963 March on Washington, and spoke shortly before the group’s leader, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech to a vast sea of people.
If that speech marked a turning point in the civil rights era — or at least the most famous moment — the struggle was far from over. Two more hard years passed before truncheon-wielding state troopers beat Lewis bloody and fractured his skull as he led 600 protesters over Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Searing TV images of that brutality helped to galvanize national opposition to racial oppression and embolden leaders in Washington to pass the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act five months later.

“The American public had already seen so much of this sort of thing, countless images of beatings and dogs and cursing and hoses,” Lewis wrote in his memoirs. “But something about that day in Selma touched a nerve deeper than anything that had come before.”

That bridge became a touchstone in Lewis’s life. He returned there often during his decades in Congress representing the Atlanta area, bringing lawmakers from both parties to see where “Bloody Sunday” went down.
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