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John Lewis leaves behind a powerful legacy of social justice

John Lewis leaves behind a powerful legacy of social justice
By Peniel E. Joseph
Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He also is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. His latest book is"The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr."

On July 17, congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis died at 80, on the same day as 95-year-old stalwart C.T. Vivian, Martin Luther King’s favorite preacher. Both leave behind a legacy of social justice activism that played a pivotal role in some of the most resounding victories of the civil rights movement: America’s Second Reconstruction.

Lewis’s death comes at a critical moment in U.S. history, amid a moral and political reckoning on black dignity and citizenship that represents nothing less than a Third American Reconstruction. And his life provides lessons for activists today on how to confront racial violence, forge productive alliances and transform American democracy.

Born in 1940 in Troy, Ala., to a family of sharecropping farmers, the deeply religious Lewis joined the movement for black dignity and citizenship as a student activist in Nashville. Already enthralled by the dazzling oratory of the young Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis enjoyed an unusual kind of political apprenticeship under the mentorship of an array of movement leaders. He learned the practical application of nonviolent civil disobedience from the Rev. James Lawson and became fast friends with fellow student activists such as Diane Nash. Ella Baker, founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”), played a critical role in convincing students such as Lewis that they — and not just King and older generations of preachers — could play pivotal leadership roles in an unfolding national drama.


Lewis’s calm demeanor, personal sincerity and outward humility made him a quiet star among student leaders. He was arrested dozens of times for civil rights activism between 1960 and 1966. In 1961, he joined hundreds of volunteers on Freedom Rides, traveling throughout the Jim Crow South to challenge segregated bus terminals. On May 14, 1961, Lewis experienced a vicious beating at the hands of a white mob as a Freedom Rider in Anniston, Ala. It was the first of many brutal experiences he endured as an activist, and such punishment bolstered Lewis’s political resolve to defeat racial segregation.

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