AMERICA'S GANDHI

Civil rights icon Lewis free at last

People of colour a powerful reminder that the promise of equality and justice is unmet.

In Summary
  • Even Dr King only saw the promised land of equality and justice from the mountain top.
  • The fight against racism and colonialism had a singular goal—equality and justice.
Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) speaks against the nomination of John Roberts as US Chief Justice during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington ON September 15, 2005.
Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) speaks against the nomination of John Roberts as US Chief Justice during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington ON September 15, 2005.
Image: REUTERS

The son of Alabama sharecroppers, a crusader of nonviolence and the conscience of the United States Congress, America’s Gandhi, died on July 17, 2020. John Robert Lewis was 80.

Lewis and 600 others were met by a phalanx of police and brutalised on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama because they demanded the right to vote. The unspeakable brutality that met Lewis and other protestors galvanised support for the Voting Rights Act.

Lewis’ contribution to the civil rights movement and his moral clarity as a US congressman for 33 years has been described as immeasurable. Lewis was the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington when Martin Luther King delivered his timeless “I have a Dream” speech in 1963. Lewis was just 23 years old.

 

While King’s speech was the most eloquent, Lewis’ was the most ferocious, revolutionary. He assailed police brutality, imprisonment of blacks and low wages.

He ended his 7:28 minute speech with moral exactitude: “By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy.”

His contribution to the civil rights movement has been described as immeasurable. Throughout his 33 years in the US Congress he called on Americans to do something, say something, get in good trouble.

And as King observed, racism and colonialism are based on the same principle—immoral arrogance that somehow a white skin confers superiority, a right to subjugate people of colour.

Honouring Lewis on Twitter, Bill Clinton tweeted, “John Lewis gave all he had to redeem America’s unmet promise of equality and justice for all, and to create a place for us to build a more perfect union together. In so doing he became the conscience of the nation.”

The promise of justice and equality remains unmet because as Barack Obama observed in his final address as president in 2017, “race remains a potent and often divisive force” in American society. However, attitudes of many Americans, young and old, have changed as evidenced by the millions of blacks, whites and Latinos who marched together for “justice for George Floyd”.

Lewis and King drew inspiration from icons of Africa’s independence struggle: Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah and Tom Mboya. The fight against racism and colonialism had a singular goal—equality and justice. And as King observed, racism and colonialism are based on the same principle—immoral arrogance that somehow a white skin confers superiority, a right to subjugate people of colour.

George Floyd and countless people of colour are a constant and powerful reminder that the promise of equality and justice that brought Lewis, King and others to Washington and Montgomery is unmet. Even Dr King only saw the promised land of equality and justice from the mountain top.

 

The last icon of the civil rights movement is gone, free at last. But a promise remains unmet. Inspired in his last days by the Black Lives Matter Movement and the mural in Washington DC, Lewis believed America will get there, expressing his indomitable faith in King’s immortal words ‘justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’.