The Passing of the Baton from Congressman John Lewis

August 4, 2020—Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta, Georgia fought his whole life for racial and social justice. Even in death, the civil rights leader and icon issued “marching orders,” according to former President Bill Clinton and others, speaking at his funeral in Atlanta, as reported in the Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, NC: July 31, 2020, p. 7A). This call to action by Lewis for the next generation could be seen in an op-ed he published in the New York Times on the day of his funeral, July 30th. In the op-ed, entitled “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” Lewis praised the current Black Lives Matter protests “to demand respect for human dignity,” and he called on “ordinary people with extraordinary vision” to vote and to seek out “good trouble, necessary trouble.” He continued, “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.” John Lewis died July 17 at 80 years of age, according to the Charlotte Observer (July 25, 2020, charlotteobserver.com).

Nicknamed “the boy from Troy” by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1958, John Lewis hailed from rural Pike County in Alabama, where Troy is located. After experiencing racial segregation in his youth, Lewis eventually became a civil rights leader, himself, by the early sixties. As a leader of the Freedom Riders, Lewis was jailed frequently and faced angry crowds and violence against him. In 1961, he was beaten after arriving at the station in Montgomery, Alabama, where he had met Rev. King three years earlier. In 1965, Lewis suffered a fractured skull on the notorious march across the Selma bridge in Selma, Alabama, where police officers beat marchers in what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” according to the Charlotte Observer (July 25, 2020). This protest helped garner support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, during those times. In later years, as Congressman, John Lewis would return to the same bridge to lead commemorative marches across it, in peace. After his death, Lewis’s coffin was brought in a horse-drawn carriage across the bridge, as well (Charlotte Observer, July 26, 2020, charlotteobserver.com).

John Lewis spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington in 1963, alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. From 1987 until his death in 2020, Lewis served as Congressman in Washington, DC, representing Atlanta, Georgia. In 2011, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. In 2020, after Lewis’s death, he became the first African-American lawmaker to lie-in-state at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, according to the Charlotte Observer (July 28, 2020, July 26, 2020, charlotteobserver.com).

After his death, Lewis’s coffin was also brought to the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. Back in Washington, DC, a memorial service was held. Then, his funeral was held in Atlanta, Georgia.

At the funeral for John Lewis, held in the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, no fewer than three former presidents commemorated him in speeches. These included former Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Obama. Current Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, also spoke. Former President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy. In the eulogy, Obama looked forward to a time in the future when “we do finish that long journey towards freedom, when we do form a more perfect union.” John Lewis, Obama said, “will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America,” according to the Charlotte Observer (July 31, 2020, p. 7A).

—Nicholas Patti

Charlotte, NC

Congressman John Lewis, from the Georgia Democratic Party