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No ‘safe places’ for John Lewis

In a world where the weapon of choice is the keyboard, where careers and lives can be casually destroyed by cancel culturists; where a feminist icon like Margaret Atwood can be accused of “throwing sexual assault survivors under the bus” for signing an open letter calling for the freedom to express unpopular opinions; it is useful to look at the career of John Lewis, the US civil rights leader who died yesterday at 80.

The term ‘microaggression’ was unknown to people like Lewis who started campaigning for racial equality in 1961, The aggression he faced took the form of very real beatings, clubbings, whips and teargas. Some of his fellow civil rights activists were tortured and murdered.

When Lewis was only 17, the issue of racial equality first became a national issue, largely because of television. The civil rights movement got its first big boost with the landmark court case Brown vs Board of Education in 1954 that ruled “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” It was ablow to most southern states where racially segregated schools were the norm. In 1957 the ruling was put to the test in Little Rock Arkansas when the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People enrolled nine African-American students in Little Rock Central High. Opposed to integration, Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus called out the State National Guard to block the entry of the black students. President Eisenhower intervened and placed the state National Guard under federal control, with the result that the same guardsmen who had barred their entry, now escorted the black students through the howling mobs into the school. That was the beginning of a new movement for justice and equality.

National Guardsmen stand by as black students walk through a phalanx of jeering students and adults to enter Little Rock Central High for the first time
In this Sept. 4, 1957, file photo, students of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., including Hazel Bryan, shout insults at Elizabeth Eckford as she calmly walks toward a line of National Guardsmen. The Guardsmen blocked the main entrance and would not let her enter.

When he was 21 Lewis made his first foray into social activism. At that time, interstate buses like Greyhound were segregated in the southern states. Blacks could not sit next to whites and would have to stand if there were no black-allocated seats available even if there were empty seats in the white section. The same applied to municipal transit throughout the south. Lewis joined a racially-mixed group of activists called the Freedom Riders to challenge the bus segregation. There were seven whites and six blacks who were determined to ride from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans in an integrated fashion. In the South, Lewis and other nonviolent Freedom Riders were beaten by angry mobs, arrested at times and taken to jail. When they stopped at the bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and tried to enter the white waiting room together. John Lewis and two other Riders were brutally attacked before a white police officer, who had been present the entire time, finally intervened. The Freedom Riders responded with nonviolence and decided not to press charges, continuing their protest ride further south where they experienced continued violence from white mobs in Alabama.  Nevertheless, only two weeks later Lewis joined a Freedom Ride that was bound for Jackson. Lewis was imprisoned for 40 days in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County, Mississippi, after participating in a Freedom Riders activity in that state. It was the first of 45 arrests for Lewis, the most recent while protesting on behalf of comprehensive immigration reform in 2013.

Lewis’ first arrest in Rock Hill SC
Lewis and fellow Freedom Rider Jim Swerg both covered in blood after being beaten by a mob

In an interview with CNN during the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Lewis recounted the sheer amount of violence he and the 12 other original Freedom Riders endured. In Birmingham, the Riders were beaten with baseball bats, chains, lead pipes and stones. They reorganized and rode to Montgomery where they were met with more violence, and Lewis was hit in the head with a wooden crate. “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious,” said Lewis, remembering the incident.

Mr. Lewis led demonstrations against racially segregated restrooms, hotels, restaurants, public parks and swimming pools, and he rose up against other indignities of second-class citizenship. At nearly every turn he was beaten, spat upon or burned with cigarettes. He was tormented by white mobs and absorbed body blows from law enforcement.

Lewis (light topcoat) being beaten by an Alabama State Trooper in Selma

Then came the demonstration in Selma Alabama in 1965. Lewis was at the head of a group of 600 black men, women and children who planned to march from Selma to  Montgomery to protest Governor George Wallace’s defiance of civil rights legislation that had been passed the year before. When the marchers got to the Edmund Pettis Bridge (named for a Confederate General and reputed Ku Klux Klan leader) they were confronted by a large phalanx of State Troopers. The troopers responded with tear gas and bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. In the melee, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, a trooper cracked Mr. Lewis’s skull with a billy club, knocking him to the ground, then hit him again when he tried to get up.

Televised images of the beatings of Mr. Lewis and scores of others outraged the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson presented to a joint session of Congress eight days later and signed into law on Aug. 6.

After Selma, Lewis worked as a community organizer for 11 years, and then accepted a government posting in the Jimmy Carer presidency. In 1981 he was elected to Atlanta City Council and served until 1986 when he ran successfully for a seat in the US House of Representatives—a position he held through 16 re-elections until his death Saturday.

As a congressman he was viewed as the most Liberal congressman. He opposed the Gulf war and boycotted the inaugurations of both George W Bush and Donald Trump, saying both their presidencies were illegitimate—Bush’s through the Florida vote count scandal, and Trump through Russian interference. In later years he earned the nickname “The conscience” of Congress. He was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer last December.

Lewis was the last surviving member of the group of those who spoke at the Martin Luther King march on Washington in 1963. He nearly died for his convictions. He was a true social justice warrior who paid for his activism in blood.

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