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The death of Congressman John Lewis, coming amid a tumultuous new struggle over civil rights, is a moment for Americans to reflect. Lewis, who died Friday at the age of 80, is a hero of our time. His heroism stemmed from his pursuit of civil rights with a combination of non-violence and radicality. He died at a time when that commitment is being challenged in a wave of violence.
It is not our intention to suggest that the majority of current protesters are not peaceable. On the contrary, it is merely to mark the sharpness of the relief into which violent factions have thrown the principles for which Lewis stood throughout his heroic career. He set an example that is increasingly relevant as our country seeks a way forward from the current travail.
Lewis’s own example was established during the years when southerners, and their northern allies, were challenging Jim Crow. He was with the first group of Freedom Riders. He walked at the head of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge at Selma. Video of the event — in the footage above, Lewis, the marcher in the light-colored raincoat, comes into view at 8:52 — shows not only his courage but his dignity.
Both had already been tested, first in the Freedom Rides to integrate interstate bus transportation. He was among those attacked at a bus station in Birmingham. By 1963, he had acceded to the chairmanship of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As such, he was a member of the leadership of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. He was, at 23, the youngest speaker at that historic event.
Lewis stepped on to the national political stage by winning, in what the New York Times called a “stunning upset,” the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 5th Georgia District. The primary pitted Lewis with his one-time communications director of SNCC, Julian Bond, then a state senator and heavily favored to win. It turned out, though, that Lewis had a far greater ability to win the backing of white voters.
The ability of Lewis to evoke a rush of sympathy from whites as well as African Americans was captured on camera in 2013. It was at an event in Montgomery, where the city’s police chief, Kevin Murphy, apologized to Lewis for the failure of the Montgomery police in 1961 to protect Lewis and other Freedom Riders. Suddenly, Chief Murphy removed his badge and bestowed it on Lewis.
It became a famous moment, and we’ve always felt it was a shame that President Trump — and Lewis — couldn’t find a way to make such a connection, though America will always hand up opportunities. It turns out that a proposal has been made to change the name of the bridge over the Alabama River at Selma. Pettus was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army and a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
The proposal is to re-name the bridge from the Edmund Pettus to the John Lewis. It occurs to us that the bridge carries four lanes United States Route 80. So the federal government may have something to say about it. It would be a chance for the nation to come together to memorialize the heroism of John Lewis at the very place where he was first touched by destiny.
Photograph of the leaders of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, left to right: Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice Mathew Ahmann; seated with glasses, the chairman of the Demonstration Committee, Cleveland Robinson; standing behind the two chairs, the president of the American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Joachim Prinz; seated center, the organizer of the demonstration, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; standing beside Rabbi Prinz is a Washington D.C. attorney and activist, Joseph Rauh, Jr.; the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis; and the National Chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, Floyd McKissick. From National Archives of the United States via Wikipedia.
Correction: United States Route 80 is the federal highway that crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge at Selma; the designation of the highway was given incorrectly in the bulldog.