As I watched the funeral procession for John Lewis throng the streets of Selma, Alabama yesterday, my heart was filled with awe and admiration for this great man who displayed such courage in fighting for what he believed in. Many accolades have been used to describe John Lewis, among them, “the conscience of the US Congress.”
As I reflect on his life and all he was able to accomplish in his eighty years on this earth, I ask myself, what made him an icon. What made him risk his life again and again for the benefit of others, most of whom he didn’t even know? Born a sharecropper’s son in Troy, Alabama, Lewis grew up on the family farm and attended segregated schools. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which he heard on radio broadcasts, stirred something in his soul, and by the time he entered Fisk University, Lewis had made up his mind to become an activist.
Lewis participated in many peaceful protests and civil rights activities, culminating in the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. John Lewis was severely beaten and almost killed. This incident is now observed every year as Bloody Sunday. Despite this, Lewis remained committed to the philosophy of non-violence and continued the struggle for civil rights. He eventually rose to prominence when he was elected to Congress in 1986 as Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, a position he held until falling prey to pancreatic cancer.
I think a look at some of the things John Lewis said would give us an insight into the source of this man’s greatness and courage. In this quote from his speech during the march on Washington, 1963, he said, “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”
In his 2012 speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, John Lewis said, “You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone – any person or any force – dampen, dim or diminish your light. Study the path of others to make your way easier and more abundant.” John Lewis possessed a B.A in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University, and was a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary. That would account for his deep-seated beliefs and for this quote he used from the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 5. “You are the light of the world… In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (v 14, 16.)
We can learn a lot from John Lewis’s life and legacy. He was beaten and arrested over 40 times, yet he remained committed but peaceful, determined but respectful, great yet humble. He saw himself as a light, someone ordained by God to shine for Him even when things seem dark. In this time of COVID-19, when there is so much darkness, may the words of Jesus and John Lewis encourage you, inspire you and galvanize you to take action for Him.
John Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge yesterday on a roadway strewn with red petals to represent the blood he shed on that very spot 55 years ago. That time, he was humiliated, beaten by state troopers almost to death. This time state troopers carried his body and paid homage to him. When you are a light that keeps on shining, no one can put you out. Your light and your legacy will live on long after you are gone. God bless