Before he was the “conscience of the U.S. Congress,” representing metropolitan Atlanta for more than three decades, before he was one of the “Big Six” leaders of the American Civil Rights movement participating in the 1963 March on Washington, and even before he was a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organizing sit-ins and marches as a college student in Nashville, John Lewis was a small-town kid from Pike County, Alabama.
Tributes to the late congressman, who passed away on July 17 after a months-long battle with pancreatic cancer, have been pouring in through news reports and social media in recent days. Many of these remembrances highlight moments from Lewis’s small town upbringing.
He grew up on a farm in Troy, Alabama, the son of a sharecropper. A favorite anecdote tells how, as a child, he dreamed of being a preacher and practiced his craft by offering sermons and services for the family chickens. He’d travel on dirt roads to attend classes at a segregated school. On the radio and in comic books, the young Lewis would learn about activists like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. The latter would come to fondly refer to Lewis as “the Boy from Troy,” when they began working together as leaders in the Civil Rights movement.
As described by the Troy Messenger, the local newspaper of Pike County, Lewis’s relationship with his hometown was illustrative of the broader change he witnessed and helped advance within his own lifetime. The paper’s tribute describes how he was galvanized to activism when the local library denied him a library card, extending its services to “whites only.”
He knew change wasn’t impossible to realize, and by the time he was 16 he’d be circulating a petition to desegregate the building. Years later, in 2018, Lewis would return to Troy for the Alabama bicentennial and to be honored with an historic marker at the library and a proclamation naming February 3 “John Lewis Day” in the city.
This hard fight for progress in the South, and the rural South in particular, looms large in Lewis’s long and storied career, from Troy to Selma, and on each dirt road and interstate in between. As a Freedom Rider, Lewis challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. He’d sit in seats reserved for white patrons, many times risking his life and facing arrest, or worse.
As the youngest speaker at the August 1963 March on Washington, Lewis took the stage just before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” and spoke of marching through the South for justice.
And March they did, most famously in small-town Selma in 1965. As demonstrators, with Lewis at the vanguard, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge for a planned march to Montgomery, they were met by law enforcement officers, who viciously attacked them. Lewis’s skull was fractured during the clash, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” The brutal scene, emerging from a peaceful demonstration seeking to assure Southern Blacks’ right to vote, is credited as hastening the passage of the U.S. Voting Rights Act months later.
Reacting to Lewis’s passing, many on social media called for renaming the bridge in Selma in his honor. Going further, others have called for honoring Lewis by strengthening and restoring the Voting Rights Act, which was weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that cut the law’s provisions for combating voter suppression and discrimination at the state and local level.
In this regard, it’s clear that Lewis’s legacy and cause remain as relevant and urgent as ever. His hardships sit with us as we confront the scars of continuing police violence against Black citizens. His oft-repeated mantras, to “stand up, speak up, and speak out” and to “make good trouble” resonate and linger, as Black Lives Matter and other groups have taken action to demand civil rights and racial justice across the country. These demonstrations have spread and grown, not just in big cities but in small towns and rural areas too, at levels not seen since Lewis’s heyday.
In a 2018 commencement address Lewis delivered at Harvard University he said, “You must lead. You’re never too young to lead. You’re never too old to lead.” And as he himself showed, as the young “boy from Troy” once preaching to the chickens, you can lead no matter where you come from.
“We need your leadership now more than ever before,” Lewis continued.
Then and now, his life reminds us that the ongoing fight for justice and equality must happen everywhere, and that those who can make an indelible mark on that cause can indeed come from anywhere.