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John Lewis, The Last of The “Big Six”

by YaYa Vargas

Fellow civil rights activists, and America as a whole, mourn the death of John Lewis, a politician, leader, and last surviving member of the “Big Six”. He served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966, and later served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death on July 17, 2020

John Robert Lewis was born on February 21, 1940 in Troy, Alabama, the third of ten children. His parents Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis, were sharecroppers in rural Pike County, Alabama.

Lewis’ home town was not accustomed to interacting with white people, and as he grew older he began taking trips into town with his family, where he experienced racism and segregation first hand. 

At age 11, an uncle took Lewis on a trip to Buffalo, New York, where he witnessed integrated schools, buses, and businesses. The visit made him more painfully aware of Troy’s exclusion of Blacks in relatively everything, a polar opposite of the progressive society in the north.

John Lewis speaking at the 1963 March on Washington

In his formative years, Lewis aspired to be a preacher. It has been said that by age 5 he preached to the chickens on his family’s farm. At age 15, Lewis preached his first public sermon. Later that year of 1955, he first heard Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio, and closely followed King’s Montgomery bus boycott news coverage since. At age 18 Lewis finally met Dr. King in person.

 

Lewis graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee where he was ordained as a Baptist minister. He then received a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University.

As a student, he was dedicated to the civil rights movement. He was instrumental in organizing multiple sit-ins, one of which lead to the desegregation of lunch counters in downtown Nashville as part of the Nashville Student Movement. He was also influential in organizing bus boycotts and other nonviolent protests in the fight for voter and racial equality.

Also during his college years, Lewis was invited to attend nonviolence workshops held at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church by the Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Kelly Miller Smith. There, Lewis and other students became dedicated adherents to the discipline and philosophy of nonviolence, expressing the need to engage in “good trouble, necessary trouble” to achieve change, an adage of his own he held by throughout his life.

John Lewis’ legacy includes, being an instrumental part of the 1961 Freedom Rides. He became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, where seven whites and six blacks shared an integrated road trip from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. The initiative was to put pressure on the federal government to overthrow the Supreme Courts 1960 decision in Boynton v. Virginia, declaring segregated interstate bus travel to be unconstitutional. 

John Lewis poses for a series of newly unearthed mugshots in the 1960s. (Nashville Police Department)

Lewis was repeatedly arrested and jailed many times in several nonviolent movements. He and his colleagues were often beaten with baseball bats, chains, lead pipes, and stones. He was once left lying at a Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, unconscious after getting hit in the head with a wooden crate. 

However harsh the violence and push back from locals and authority, Lewis’ activism never slowed up. In the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery that became known as Bloody Sunday, Lewis was among 600 unarmed demonstrators attacked by police.

His courage and unshakable faith to the philosophy of reconciliation and nonviolence made him emerge as a leader. By the time he served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966, Lewis had been arrested 24 times in the nonviolent movement for equal justice. 

 

Shortly after, while as chairman of the SNCC, Lewis was named one of the “Big Six” leaders who organized the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech debuted, along with Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, and Roy Wilkins. 

Lewis also spoke to the crowd of approximately 1 million in attendance, asking, “which side is the federal government on?” At age 23, he was the youngest speaker that day, and, at the time of his death, was the last Big Six member remaining.

The “Big Six” Civil Rights Leaders (l to r) John Lewis, Whitney Young Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer Jr., and Roy Wilkins. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Other accomplishments during Lewis tenure at the SNCC comprise of the Mississippi Summer Project, also known as Freedom Summer, a volunteer campaign in the United States launched June 1964 in an attempt to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi. The project also helped to establish dozens of Freedom Schools, Freedom Houses, and community centers in small towns throughout Mississippi to aid the local black community.

 

Even in his later age, Lewis did not shy away from standing up to injustice. In 2009 he was arrested outside the Embassy of Sudan, where he protested the obstruction of aid to refugees in Darfur. In 2016, he lead a 25 hour sit- in on the House floor to protest inaction on gun control, to push a vote preventing people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns.

John Lewis is presented with the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, in February 2011. Photograph: Alex Wong/AFP/Getty Images

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded him with the Medal of Freedom, in recognition for Lewis’ meritorious contribution to the security and national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural and several other significant endeavors through civil activism.

 

 

At the close of 2019, Lewis announced he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. After a six-month battle with the disease he passed away at the age of 80 in Atlanta, Georgia. He is survived by his son, John Miles Lewis. Lilian Miles, Lewis Sr.’s wife, passed away 2012.

Ultimately John Lewis’ relentless fight for justice not only shaped the current laws people of color, namely the Black community, are reaping the benefits of today, but he also helped reconstruct the America its founding fathers initially created, for the better.

 

The country still has a long way to go in regards to abolishing the normality of police brutality and systemic racism. Thankfully, Lewis and the “Big Six” have certainly laid out the blueprint of how to get into “good trouble”, in hopes the next generation will take the reigns and continue what he started.

“I want to see young people in America feel the spirit of the 1960s and find a way to get in the way. To find a way to get in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.”

John Lewis

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