Portrait of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. | Photo by Anthony Geathers, Used with permission

 

AN ENDURING IMAGE of the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis (1940-2020) took a knee. It was the summer of 1962 and he was leading a vigil outside a “whites only” swimming pool in Cairo, Ill. Photographer Danny Lyon captured the compelling image and Lewis wrote about the moment and the climate of violence that motivated it in his memoir.

He said they were bowing their heads in prayer for the safety of fellow civil rights activists who were being battered and beaten, facing lethal aggression throughout the American South. Violence was particularly brutal in Mississippi and Georgia, where the voter registration work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was concentrated.

“Near the end of that summer, an enduring image of our pleas for federal help came out of Cairo, where I was leading a demonstration of students and young children one afternoon at the city’s swimming pool, which had remained segregated despite our weeks of protest,” Lewis wrote in “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.”

A founder of SNCC who would rise to chairman of the organization a year later, Lewis was in Cairo organizing a direct action campaign against segregated public accommodations. He was 22.

Nearly 400 miles south of Chicago, Cairo was “Southern in every way—very small, very rural, very segregated,” Lewis wrote. The town’s restaurants, theaters, hotels, bus station, rollerskating rink, and swimming pool, were all segregated.

“Danny Lyon was with us that day outside the swimming pool and as we knelt and prayed, he snapped a photograph. That picture, …became probably the most popular poster of the movement.” — John Lewis

“Danny Lyon was with us that day outside the swimming pool and as we knelt and prayed, he snapped a photograph,” Lewis wrote in the memoir co-authored with Michael D’Orso. “That picture, captioned ‘COME LET US BUILD A NEW WORLD TOGETHER,’ became probably the most popular poster of the movement. Ten thousand copies were printed and put on sale for a dollar apiece and they sold out.”

Lewis recognized the importance of photography for bearing witness to the Civil Rights Movement and spreading images that illuminated what was happening in the South to the rest of the nation and the world.

More than 50 years later, the photographer and the movement leader talked about the role of photography in the fight for change. Lewis and Lyon, who was a newly minted SNCC photographer when he arrived in Cairo, were in conversation at the Whitney Museum of American Art on the occasion of “Danny Lyon: Message to the Future,” a major retrospective featuring Lyon’s photographs and films.

“You were so gifted,” he said of Lyon, “and if it hadn’t been for you and a few other people, I don’t know what would’ve happened to the American Civil Rights Movement.”

 


Danny Lyon’s 1962 photograph of John Lewis and two others kneeling in prayer in front of a segregated public pool in Cairo, Ill., became a widely recognized SNCC poster. “Rather than depicting the action of a single individual, the poster’s image celebrates group-centered leadership in which everyone works and struggles together, side by side,” the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery notes. | Printed by Lincoln Lithograph Company, Atlanta, Ga. (14 x 18 1/4 inches)

 

A FIERCE FIGHTER for justice and humanity, Rep. Lewis (D-Ga.) dedicated his life to nonviolent protest, enduring brutal physical harm and countless arrests throughout the 1960s, sacrificing his own safety and well being to advance the campaign for civil rights so that Black people could gain full access to American citizenship and democracy.

He later brought the fight for the underrepresented and overlooked to Congress where he served for more than three decades. During his tenure, Lewis continued to focus on voting rights, supported access to healthcare, immigration and LGBTQ rights, and gun control, and made it his business to pass legislation that called for the creation of a national museum focused on African American history and culture.

Lewis, a civil rights icon who was also a museum supporter and avid art collector, died July 17 after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80. The Georgia Democrat had represented Atlanta from the state’s fifth district in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987.

Released widely earlier this month, a new documentary explores his groundbreaking contributions and relentless commitment to change. The title of the film, “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” is inspired by his mantra oft-repeated in public remarks.

“We all have an obligation, a mission, and a mandate to do what we can. We must speak up for those who have been left out and left behind. We cannot afford to be silent,” Lewis said in 2018 at the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.

“During the 60s, I was arrested 40 times and since I’ve been in Congress, another five times. And I’m probably gonna get arrested again for something. My philosophy is very simple, when you see something that is not right, not fair, you have a moral obligation to stand up, do something, say something, and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

“My philosophy is very simple, when you see something that is not right, not fair, you have a moral obligation to stand up, do something, say something, and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” — John Lewis

In parallel with his civil rights activism and career in Washington, Lewis was deeply connected to art, artists, and museums. When he was a student at Fisk University, he took an art course with Aaron Douglas. Lewis counted late artists Benny Andrews and Thornton Dial among his friends and both artists produced works paying homage to him.

Art covered the walls of his homes in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., his district office in Atlanta, and Congressional office on Capitol Hill, where countless photographs and keepsakes commemorating his civil rights and legislative experiences were also on display.

One of his signal achievements in Congress was the passage of legislation he originated and President George W. Bush signed into law on Dec. 16, 2003, establishing the National Museum of African American History and Culture within the Smithsonian.

Last month, Lewis told Oprah magazine he couldn’t do without art. He said he became friends with African American artists at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and added: “Without their images, I don’t know what would have happened to many of us. Art can take you to another place—and their pieces said we could dream dreams and be a better people.”

 


March 7, 1965: SNCC Chairman John Lewis and Hosea Williams of SCLC lead peaceful voting rights demonstrators across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. | © Alabama Department of Archies and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by Tom Lankford, Birmingham News. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures

 


March 7, 1965: SNCC Chairman John Lewis being beaten by an Alabama state trooper at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, during a confrontation known as “Bloody Sunday.” With white onlookers cheering them on, troopers in riot gear brutalized and trampled unarmed men, women and children beating them with clubs and unleashing tear gas. Lewis was hit on the head and fell to the ground and when he tried to get up, was struck again, leaving him unconscious. | Associated Press

 
From the age of 16, John Lewis had been trying to right society’s wrongs, inspired by the actions of Rosa Parks and the words of Dr. King

JOHN ROBERT LEWIS was born Feb. 21, 1940, near Troy, Ala. Lewis was the third of 10 children. His parents, Eddie and Willie Mae Lewis, were sharecroppers. In 1944, the family purchased their own land, 110 acres of cotton, corn, and peanut fields from a white grocer for $300. It was a rare feat that didn’t save them from a life of back-breaking field work and meager earnings.

Lewis grew up picking cotton and tending to chickens. They had about 60. He named them, preached to them, and collected their eggs. He loved being in charge of the family’s chickens and loathed picking cotton.

“I hated the work itself,” he wrote in “Walking With the Wind,” but even more than that, from a very early age I realized and resented what it represented: exploitation, hopelessness, a dead-end way of life.”

In town, the bus station had “Colored” and “White” restrooms. Drinking fountains were separate, too. At the movie theater, Blacks were relegated to the balcony upstairs, the “Coloreds” section.

Lewis couldn’t tolerate the segregated seating and eventually stopped going. “I didn’t go to too many movies before I decided I would never go again,” he wrote. “It was an insult to have to sit up there. I felt it intensely. To this day, I rarely go to the movies. The memory of sitting up in that balcony is just too strong.”

He said he would ask his mother and father, his grandparents and great-grandparents why there was segregation and racial discrimination and they would say that’s the way it is. He refused to accept it.

“I remember that we had to sit upstairs, in a balcony section set aside for “Coloreds.” …I didn’t go to too many movies before I decided I would never go again. It was an insult to have to sit up there.” — John Lewis

From the age of 16, Lewis had been trying to right society’s wrongs, inspired by the actions of Rosa Parks and the words of Martin Luther King Jr., he heard on the radio.

Before he left home, the desire to check out a book at the public library led to his first protest. Lewis applied for a library card, knowing he would be rejected. When he was rebuffed, he filed a petition stating the public library should be accessible to African Americans who paid taxes. (He didn’t get a response.)

The summer before his senior year in high school, the state’s attorney general got a court order to ban the NAACP in Alabama. Lewis responded immediately by finding the address to the national headquarters of the NAACP and mailing $1.50 for a youth membership. Within a matter of days, he received his membership card. For years, he carried it proudly in his wallet until it “finally crumbled apart with age.”

Lewis described himself as “an earnest student, but not an exceptional one.” His mind was set on furthering his education and he did so, becoming the first in his family to attend college.

He enrolled in Baptist Theological (ABT) Seminary in Nashville, where students worked on campus in exchange for their tuition, room, and board. Lewis started out cleaning industrial-sized pots in the cafeteria kitchen and mopped and waxed the floors in the administration building his junior and senior years. Lewis graduated from ABT in 1961, and then attended nearby Fisk, eventually earning a B.A. in religion and philosophy (1967).

 


Aug. 28, 1963: SNCC Chairman John Lewis speaking at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Lewis helped organize the historic march joining major civil rights leaders A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, Whitney M. Young, and Martin Luther King Jr. One of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders, 23-year-old Lewis was the youngest keynote speaker and the last surviving member of the group. Watch his March on Washington speech. | Bettmann Archive Getty

 
John Lewis and artist Benny Andrews became fast friends when they met and “connected instantly” because of their shared backgrounds.

His upbringing, path to awareness, and desire to experience a wider world was not unlike that of Georgia-born artist Benny Andrews (1930-2006). Lewis wrote the foreword to “Bennie Andrews: There Must Be a Heaven” in 2013. The catalog accompanied an exhibition presented by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York, seven years after the artist’s death. Lowery Stokes Sims wrote the main essay.

In the foreword, the congressman said the two became fast friends when they met and “connected instantly” because of their shared backgrounds. Both were sons of sharecroppers who came from families of 10 children. Each began dreaming early on about outrunning the limits of segregation, Lewis wrote.

Born in Plainview, Ga., Andrews lived and worked in New York City, where he was an agitator for change on behalf of visual artists. His figurative, mixed-media paintings reflect his biography and his passions, exploring the quotidian of rural African American life and speaking to American history and social justice issues.

“We grabbed every ounce of courage we could gather to heed our inner guidance and followed the insistent tap-tap-tapping of our hearts. It directed us to throw down the plow and the pick, and to walk off the field away from the farm and find our way to the teeming cities,” Lewis wrote in the foreword.

“We knew somehow, somewhere there had to be a better way and we kept on making better ground until we found ourselves in the midst of a revolution. His dream led him to pick up a brush and a palette of paints and become a voice for equal justice for under-represented artists. Mine led me to sit-in and sit-down and become a voice for equal justice for segregated citizens.”

He continued: “Benny was influenced by talent that bridged artistic excellence with social commentary. He began to apply the lessons of civil rights activism to the demand for fair treatment by museums and galleries.

“Benny (Andrews) was influenced by talent that bridged artistic excellence with social commentary. He began to apply the lessons of civil rights activism to the demand for fair treatment by museums and galleries.” — John Lewis

“For Benny, there was no line where his activism ended and his art began. To him, using his brush and his pen to capture the essence and spirit of his time was as much as an act of protest as sitting-in or sitting-down was for me. I can see him now thinking, speaking, articulating what needs to be done and in the next few moments trying to make real what he had been contemplating.”

The last series of paintings Andrews produced focused on Lewis. Benny Andrews: The John Lewis Series documented key highlights in his life and career. The series features works such as “Feeding the Chickens,” “Segregation,” “Protest,” “The Pettus Bridge,” and “John Lewis Speaking.”

In 2009, the paintings and drawings were on view at the North Carolina Central University Art Museum in Durham, and a selection of works from the series illustrates the children’s book “John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement.”

 


Illustrated by E.B. Lewis, “Preaching to Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis” by Jabari Asim was recognized among the Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2016 by The New York Times.

 
What Benny Andrews accomplished with paintings, Danny Lyon achieved using photography.

What Andrews accomplished with paintings, Lyon achieved using photography. A Jewish college student from New York, Lyon showed up in Cairo after his third year at the University of Chicago, where he was studying history. He was hired by James Foreman becoming SNCC’s first photographer. He would go on to document SNCC’s activities throughout the South in Americus, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Cambridge, Md., and Clarksdale, Miss. Lyon worked for SNCC from 1962 to 1964.

“You made it plain. You made it real,” Lewis said when they were in conversation at the Whitney Museum on July 15, 2016.

Lewis said Lyon became one of his closest friends after Cairo and eventually his roommate in Atlanta, where he had moved from Nashville to serve as chair at SNCC’s headquarters. Often with images from Lyon’s exhibition as a guide, they recalled pivotal moments, how much they missed Julian Bond (SNCC’s communications director who later became chairman of the NAACP and died in 2015), and the vulnerability of whites and the press in their ranks.

“During the 60s in the American South, it was very, very dangerous for a white person to be associated with the Movement. But it was very dangerous also to be a photographer,” Lewis said.

“If you had a camera, a pen and a pad as a reporter, during the Freedom Rides they didn’t jump on the Black and white Freedom Riders first, they attacked the reporters and photographers. …And then they turned on us, the Freedom Riders.”

“If you had a camera, a pen and a pad as a reporter, during the Freedom Rides they didn’t jump on the Black and white Freedom Riders first, they attacked the reporters and photographers. …And then they turned on us. — John Lewis

Lewis recounted a light moment, too. “I remember when we were roommates, when your hair was black and I had all my hair, and you used the bathroom as the dark room,” he said. “I was afraid that one night I would get up and go in to brush my teeth and I thought I would pick up the wrong fluid.”

He went on to praise Lyon’s contributions. “These photographs were shared with people all around America and all around the world. They were moved. They were inspired to do something, to say something, to move their feet, to make a little noise. That is a great thing for an artist to do.”

 


Sept. 24, 2016: Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Lonnie G. Bunch III (left), founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, at the dedication ceremony for the museum, which was made possible by legislation Lewis tirelessly pushed for years. | Photo by Leah L. Jones

 
“I do not know if the museum would have happened without John Lewis.”

Lyon’s 1962 image of Lewis kneeling outside the segregated swimming pool in Cairo, Ill., is in the collections of several institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, High Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Lewis has deep ties to NMAAHC, which was a century in the making. The origins of the institution date to 1915 when Black civil war veterans pushed for recognition of African American contributions to the United States on the National Mall.

The congressman was instrumental in the museum finally coming to fruition, after key efforts in the late 1920s and late 1960s failed to take hold. Shortly after Lewis arrived on Capitol Hill, it became one of his priorities.

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III was the founding director of NMAAHC. In a statement about the death of Lewis, Bunch called him “the conscience of a nation” and “a voice of moral clarity.” He also cited his role in the museum being realized.

“His arrival (in Congress) was lucky for the Smithsonian, as he turned out to be one of the biggest champions of building an African American museum on the National Mall,” Bunch said. “Mr. Lewis helped keep the project alive in people’s minds by introducing legislation for the museum every year until Congress finally enacted it in 2003. I do not know if the National Museum of African American History and Culture would have happened without him.”

The opening dedication ceremony for NMAAHC was held on Sept. 24, 2016, and Lewis joined Bunch and President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, President Bush, and former First Lady Laura Bush on the dais.

“This museum is a testament to the dispossessed in every corner of the globe who yearn for freedom. It is a song to the scholars and scribes, scientists and teachers, to the revolutionaries and the voices of protest, to the ministers and authors of peace.” — John Lewis

The congressman was among those who delivered remarks at the event which took place steps from the site of the 1963 March on Washington where, as head of SNCC, Lewis was the youngest speaker.

“This museum is a testament to the dispossessed in every corner of the globe who yearn for freedom. It is a song to the scholars and scribes, scientists and teachers, to the revolutionaries and the voices of protest, to the ministers and authors of peace. It is a story of life, the story of our lives wrapped up in a beautiful, golden crown of grace,” Lewis said at the dedication.

“As these doors open, it is my hope that each and every person who visits this beautiful museum will walk away deeply inspired filled with a greater respect for the dignity and the worth of every human being and a stronger commitment to the ideal of justice, equality, and true democracy.”

The Smithsonian museum was a culmination of great vision, hard work, political maneuvering, and widespread support. By contrast, the debut of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum was overshadowed by partisan politics and unwavering principles. When the Jackson, Miss., museum opened in 2017, Lewis canceled his plans to attend the grand opening celebration. He cited the attendance of Donald Trump and his refusal to share the stage with him.

“I think his presence would make a mockery of everything that people tried to do to redeem the soul of America and to make this country better,” Lewis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

(Lewis boycotted Trump’s inauguration earlier in the year, and also stayed away from his first address to Congress and State of the Union speeches.)

Trump showed up for the Dec. 9, 2017, celebration, toured the museum, and gave brief remarks. Along with Lewis, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) also declined to attend due to Trump’s participation.

 


July 18, 2020: Drone image of Rep John Lewis (D-Ga.) mural by Sean Schwab in Atlanta, where people have been leaving flowers, notes, and keepsakes since the civil rights leader’s death one day earlier (July 17). | Photo by Elijah Nouvelage, Getty Images

 
The legacy of John Lewis is represented in public art works throughout Atlanta.

WHEN LEWIS MOVED FROM NASHVILLE to Atlanta to become chair of SNCC, the city became his adopted hometown. He met and married his wife, Lillian Miles Lewis in Atlanta, and raised their son, John-Miles Lewis, there.

More than a dozen years after he arrived, Atlanta voters sent Lewis to Congress, eventually electing him to 17 terms. (He won the seat after a heated primary run-off against his good friend Julian Bond.) Evidence of his legacy is represented in public art works throughout the district.

In downtown Atlanta, a “Hero” mural depicting Lewis is featured on the facade of a towering building in the historic Sweet Auburn district. Painted by Sean Schwab in 2012, the 65-foot artwork was voted best mural in Atlanta by Atlanta Journal-Constitution readers last year.

Lewis is also featured with fellow civil rights pioneers in a mural on the facade of Privado Grooming Salon in the Vine City neighborhood of Atlanta. The mural by Muhammad Yungai was installed last year and completed in January. Atlanta artists Chris Veal and Jarrett Becke also muralized Lewis.

(Artists outside Atlanta are also paying homage to Lewis. A new mural by Damien Mitchell was commissioned in Staten Island, N.Y., since Lewis died. In Richmond, Va., Dustin Klein projected iconic cultural and historic figures symbolizing the Black Lives Matter movement onto a statue of Robert E. Lee. Lewis was among those depicted on July 19, along with W.E.B. Du Bois, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and George Floyd.)

More than 110 million travelers passed through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2019. It’s the world’s busiest passenger airport and home to an exhibition dedicated to Lewis in 2019. In the domestic terminal atrium, the “John Lewis: Good Trouble” installation documents the arc of his contributions as a preacher, activist, public servant, and visionary with objects, ephemera, photos, and video.

 


Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) standing before the “John Lewis: Good Trouble” installation that was unveiled in 2019 at the Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport. | Photo Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

 
John Lewis considered artist Thornton Dial a “kindred spirit” and “a very moving person.”

The City of Atlanta’s public art collection includes “The Bridge” (circa 1997) by Thornton Dial (1928-2016). The 42-foot-long work is abstract, architectural, and figurative, and brings together a mix of materials, including metal, wood, glass, tires, and other found objects.

Paying homage to Lewis, the artwork has multiple meanings, referencing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and reflecting his enduring quest for justice and equality. Dedicated in 2005, the sculpture was installed in Freedom Park near the intersection of Ponce de Leon Avenue and Freedom Parkway. Last October, the thoroughfare was renamed John Lewis Freedom Parkway.

Lewis considered Dial a “kindred spirit” and “a very moving person.” Like his connection with Andrews, they had similar roots. Dial was a dozen years older than the congressman, but both were born in Alabama and all-too familiar with growing up in the rural South during Jim Crow.

When the traveling exhibition “Thornton Dial: Hard Truths” opened at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 2012, it was billed as the artist’s most extensive survey to date. Nearly 60 works were shown— sculptures, wall-mounted assemblages, mixed-media paintings, and drawings.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) spoke to Lewis about the artist and the exhibition while it was on view. “I love his work,” Lewis told AJC. “People classify him as a folk artist, but I think it’s more than folk art. To me, it’s almost classic.”

Lewis also shared Dial’s interpretation of “The Bridge” with AJC: “He said it’s like the old and the new, it’s traveling from one place to another place, and along the way, you come in contact with different parts of human life. And that we’re still crossing a bridge. He was saying in effect: This is one bridge, but we have more bridges to cross.”

“People classify him as a folk artist, but I think it’s more than folk art. To me, it’s almost classic.” — John Lewis


THORNTON DIAL, “The Bridge,” circa 1997 (found objects, including scrap metal, tires, wood, plastic, various textiles, and glass, 42-feet long), Freedom Park, Atlanta, Dedicated to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) in 2005. | City of Atlanta, Office of Cultural Affairs. See more images of The Bridge

 
John Lewis was an “art lover with a sizable collection he’s never counted or cataloged.”

THE NEWSPAPER DESCRIBED the congressman as “art lover with a sizable collection he’s never counted or cataloged” and said he “proudly displays a large-scale Dial wall-mounted sculpture at his Atlanta office as well as paintings by his pal in his Washington and Atlanta homes.”

Lewis’s collection included works by Charles White and Romare Bearden. In addition to works by Dial, he told the newspaper he owned pieces by several other self-taught or “folk” artists, including R.A. Miller, Rev. Howard Finster, Bernice Sims, and Mose Tolliver. “I admire them all, but also love Bearden and (Jacob) Lawrence,” he said.

On Feb. 26, 2016, Lewis attended an African American art sale at Weschler’s, a Washington, D.C., auction house. The auction offered the collection Rev. Douglas E. Moore and Dr. Doris Hughes-Moore, which included 63 prints by Elizabeth Catlett, along with works by a few other Black artists.

Moore was a civil rights activist in North Carolina. He organized a student sit-in at Royal Ice Cream parlor in Durham on June 23, 1957, prior to the more well-known Greensboro lunch counter protests in 1960. Moore later settled in Washington and died in 2019 at age 91.

In advance of the auction, Lewis spoke about his connections to art with Danielle Isaacs, then a fine art specialist at Weschler’s (now with Sotheby’s). The brief exchange was published by Black Art Project.

Lewis said Douglas taught him art appreciation at Fisk. It was the early 1960s, the height of the Civil Rights Movement. “African American art served as an inspiration to us all,” he said. “Seeing our work, in the struggle, depicted on canvas or in other forms of fine art was very uplifting. My appreciation for African American art grew out of these experiences.”

He also weighed in on the fact that most collectors of American art have only recently started to realize their collections are incomplete without works by African American artists.

Lewis said: “I think that the museum community, art activists, and the artists themselves must do a better job of affirming that African American art is American art of world-class caliber. The stories of African Americans are some of the most inspiring stories of human history. They speak of pain and suffering, the ongoing struggle for human dignity, the hopes, aspirations and dreams of a people. These are universal concepts and ideas expressed beautifully and innovatively by African American artists. Perhaps some museums and collectors have finally realized that we all have stories to share, and it is not possible to tell the whole story of this nation without including African American art.”

“I think that the museum community, art activists, and the artists themselves must do a better job of affirming that African American art is American art of world-class caliber.” — John Lewis


Sept. 24, 2016: Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) delivers remarks at the dedication ceremony for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture as, from left, former First Lady Laura Bush, former President George W. Bush, First Lady Michelle Obama, and President Barack Obama look on.

 
John Lewis received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama, and was recognized by the Gordon Parks Foundation and U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

LEWIS WON NUMEROUS AWARDS and accolades recognizing his profound contributions to the world and American culture. In 2011, Obama presented him with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Other recipients that year included former President George H.W. Bush; artist Jasper Johns; and Sylvia Mendez, a Latina civil rights activist.

When Mendez was a child, she was rebuffed by a “whites only” public school and her parents took their case to the California federal court winning a class action suit in 1946 that laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education, eight years later.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum recognized Lewis with its 2016 Elie Wiesel Award. The honor is bestowed annually on “internationally prominent individuals whose actions have advanced the Museum’s vision of a world where people confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.”

In 2017, Lewis received a Gordon Parks Foundation Award. When he accepted the honor, Lewis said: “Growing up looking through Life magazine and other publications to see the unbelievable photographs of Gordon Parks said to me boy you can go places, you can dream dreams, you can make a contribution.”

Then after six decades of good trouble, Lewis faced his greatest challenge. On Dec. 19, 2019, Lewis issued a statement announcing he had Stage IV pancreatic cancer. “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.

Nonetheless, Lewis stayed in the fight, energized by a new generation speaking up about police brutality and police reform and standing up for Black lives and racial justice.

 


Feb. 15, 2011: President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Freedom to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) at the White House in Washington, D.C. Watch John Lewis talk about his life and receiving the medal. | Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images.

 
John Lewis reflected on his perilous journey and the progress of the movement and was hopeful about what the future holds

IN JUNE, LEWIS PARTICIPATED in a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. The intergenerational conversation about the toll of racism on mental health featured President Obama, Equal Justice Initiative Founder Bryan Stevenson, and many other young leaders.

Lewis spoke from his Washington home, where art could be seen in the background, hung gallery style on the wall along his stairs. He reflected on his perilous journey and the progress of the movement, and was hopeful about what the future holds.

“More than anything my faith kept me, held me together. And I couldn’t give up. Could not give in. When I was being beaten on the (Edmund Pettus) bridge, I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die. And I said a little prayer. I said, ‘Lord let me live. I want to stay here. I want to be around.’ And I believe it was the grace of God and praying witnesses that helped save me,” Lewis said.

“And so today I feel lucky, more than lucky, more than blessed but to be here. To see the changes that have occurred, to live to see a young man, a young friend like President Barack Obama become President of the United States of America. It was worth the pain. And that’s why I believe that we cannot give up. We cannot become bitter or hostile. And to see all of the young people Black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, standing up, speaking up, being prepared to march. They’re going to help redeem the soul of America.”

“…To see all of the young people Black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, standing up, speaking up, being prepared to march. They’re going to help redeem the soul of America.” — John Lewis

On June 7, Lewis made his last public appearance. He joined Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser on 16th Street where “Black Lives Matter” is painted in large yellow block letters. The installation, and countless others like it that have been painted in cities across country, is a bittersweet reminder that the activism he committed to in his late teens is alive and well in a new generation of vocal and unbowed young people.

The street mural is adjacent to Lafayette Park. Fencing installed around the perimeter to distance demonstrators from the White House has become an outdoor gallery where protest signs and art calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality are displayed.

LEWIS FILLED OUT the Proust Questionnaire in the Holiday 2019 issue of Vanity Fair, responding to nearly 20 inquires. Obama was his answer to two questions—his real-life hero and the living person he most admires. Obama “believed he could be president of the United States, and he succeeded. He was kind, and he tried to set a high standard of leadership,” Lewis said. The historical figures Lews most identifies with are King, Mohandas Gandhi, and Jesus Christ, because “they taught us the way of peace, love, and nonviolence.”

His greatest extravagance? “Buying art…. But it makes me happy!” In the concluding question he was asked “How would you like to die?” Lewis said: “I don’t want to die. I don’t think I’m going to die…but we all have to die. Since I do, I hope I live on in the hearts and minds of people.” CT

 

FUNERAL SERVICES The legacy of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) is being celebrated over six days in Georgia, Alabama, and Washington, D.C., from July 25-30. Here is the schedule

READ MORE about the life and legacy of John Robert Lewis (1940-2020) in obituaries from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution

 


June 7, 2020: Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) at Black Lives Matter Plaza, near the the White House, Washington, D.C. | Photo by Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images

 

FIND MORE about Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) on his Congressional website

FIND MORE about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the SNCC Digital Gateway project

 

READ MORE President Obama issued a statement about the death of John Lewis (July 18, 2020)

HEAR MORE John Lewis was a guest on the public radio program On Being with Krista Tippett (March 28, 2013)

 


A tribute to John Lewis, the civil rights icon and veteran member of Congress, in his own words. | Video by The Washington Post

 

FIND MORE In 1960, John Lewis was among the Nashville students who participated in a sit-in campaign to desegregate local lunch counters. Watch Lewis and other participants reflect on the experience

FIND MORE In 1961, John Lewis was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders—young Black and white activists—who traveled by bus across the South openly challenging segregation in public transportation. More here and here

 


Trailer for “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” the new documentary by Dawn Porter. | Video by Magnolia Pictures

 

READ MORE Bernard Lafayette Jr., remembers “The First Time John Lewis and I Integrated the Buses”

READ MORE C.T. Vivian (1924-2020) a major civil rights organizer and King lieutenant, who participated in the Nashville sit-in campaign and Freedom Rides. He shared his experiences in an oral history interview with Taylor Branch and died the same day as his friend John Lewis

 


September 2016: Appearing on The Late Show, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) talks to Stephen Colbert about his three-volume graphic novel “March” and at the end of the appearance crowd surfs through the audience. | Video by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

 


In June, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) joined a virtual conversation with the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, featuring President Obama, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, writer and survivor of police brutality Leon Ford Jr., and youth leader LeQuan Muhammad, and other. Activist and author Darnell Moore served as moderator. | Video by Obama Foundation

 


June 4, 2020: Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) gave his first interview since the death of George Floyd to CBS This Morning, speaking with Gayle King. “The way this young man died watching the video it made me so sad. It was so painful. It made me cry. I kept saying to myself, ‘How many more, how many more young Black men will be murdered?’ That the madness must stop,” Lewis said. “It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world to take to the streets to speak up to speak out.” | Video by CBS News This Morning

 

BOOKSHELF
Presidential historian John Meacham has written a new book about John Lewis, the civil right icon and veteran member of Congress. Meacham’s “His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope” is forthcoming in August. The three-volume, award-winning graphic novel “March (Triology)” illustrates the experiences of Lewis in the Civil Right Movement and begins and ends with the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that became known as Bloody Sunday. A review in The New York Times said the project was “designed to help new generations of readers visualize the possibilities of political engagement.” The third installment won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. The second was recognized at Comic-Con with the Eisner Award. Illustrated by E.B. Lewis, “Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis” by Jabari Asim was on the New York Times list of the Best Illustrated Children’s Books in 2016.

 

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