DEATH OF A GREAT AMERICAN

This week Congressman John Lewis of Alabama died of pancreatic cancer. He was 80. John Lewis had won the primary to contest in November and win his congressional seat for the 19th time in Georgia. As his victory indicates he was popular in his constituency and highly respected among his colleagues in Washington, D.C. The nation lowered its flag for him. Because of covid-19 a large funeral procession or a large memorial service could not be possible. Yet, television channels kept on talking about him all day and celebrated the man and his mission.

John Lewis was given the highest civilian recognition the “Presidential Medal of Honor” by President Barack Obama. It was a proper recognition but the real recognition he earned years ago. While participating in a Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery as President of the Students Nonviolence Coordination Committee (SNCC) he, among many others was brutally attacked by police. The blows fractured his skull. Yet he did not give up his goal. As he grew older and more experienced in state craft he became increasingly committed to decency and mutual respect. In today's contentious atmosphere in Washington he was known as the “Conscience of Congress”. He could work with both sides of the isle without a problem.

One of 10 children of his parents John Lewis grew up in Troy, rural Alabama, where his father was a sharecropper. The family had just bought some land where it raised chickens and grew crops. A devout church goer John read the Bible and gave a sermon to his flock, the chickens. In the American South of the 1950s the situation for the black population was very bad. Lynching of black men was happening everywhere. The law was always in favor of the white supremacy. So John was always told by his mother to stay away from trouble. When he was a teenager the bus boycott of Montgomery, Alabama, started because of Rosa Park's refusal to yield a seat to a white passenger and subsequently she was arrested. The nonviolent leadership of a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. also made him a folk hero.

In order to attend a Baptist college, young John Lewis needed a strong recommendation. On hearing about Dr. King he wrote him a letter. The minister invited the boy from Troy. And thus began their relationship. John Lewis became a foot soldier in the Civil Rights movement. As president of SNCC he was one of those who addressed the nation from the Lincoln Memorial at the first ever Civil Rights rally. As one of the six Civil Rights leaders he visited the White House to talk to President Johnson. Over the years he participated in many rallies, sit- ins and civil disobedience and was arrested many times. For him, all of them were “good troubles.” Voting rights for the blacks in the American South was one of the demands of the civil Rights movement. The white establishment had skewered the process in such a way that it was almost impossible for any black man or woman to vote. Any complaint would not work as the scale of justice was tipped against the blacks. However, it was a part of a pattern worldwide. Poor and oppressed needed to rise against their oppression. Yet, violent uprising was not an option. Gandhi's nonviolent noncooperation footed the bill. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. followed Gandhi's path and nonviolent resistance became a powerful tool in the hands of the black people of America. Within 50 years after the rally in Washington Barack Obama, a black man became America's president. People like John Lewis made it possible and Obama knew it. That is why while signing his name on John Lewis' invitation ticket to his inauguration the newly elected president wrote “This is because of you, John.”


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