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On July 17, longtime Congressional representative and civil rights activist John Lewis (D-GA) died at the age of 80 after six months of fighting against cancer. At the time of his death, Lewis had served in Congress as the Representative for Georgia’s fifth district, which includes most of Atlanta and many of its suburbs, for 33 years. Long before – and during – his time in Congress, Lewis was a revered civil rights activist who was arrested at least 45 times in his lifetime, most recently in 2013. Here are five reasons why John Lewis was so important.
1. Desegregation in the South
In some of Lewis’ first activist efforts, he led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters to tacitly demand that Black people be afforded the same basic decency as white people. He was part of the 1961 Freedom Rides and the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, both of which were crucial in desegregation efforts. Today, the idea of explicitly segregated restaurants and other spaces is all but taboo – and John Lewis was important in large part for facilitating this desegregation.
In 2014, Ava DuVernay directed the critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning film Selma, which explored the titular Alabama city’s role in the civil rights movement. This city is where John Lewis and other peaceful protesters were infamously attacked by police and vigilantes in 1965 as the protest crossed the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis’ skull was fractured in the attacks, and images of the violence that police and vigilantes exerted on the protesters ultimately led to the Voting Rights Act.
In the wake of Lewis’ death, many people have called for the Edmund Pettus Bridge to be renamed the John Lewis Bridge. Pettus was a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan, and many Americans have called for the renaming – or removal – of many public fixtures dedicated to people with racist legacies in the wake of the George Floyd protests.
3. Comic books
Perhaps surprisingly for a civil rights leader and member of Congress, John Lewis is important in the world of comic books as well. Lewis co-wrote the three-installment comic book series March with his telecommunications and technology policy aide Andrew Aydin, who helped Lewis transform his real-life battles during the Civil Rights Movement into a media format that often has a large audience of children and adolescents. March: Book 2 won the award for Best Reality-Based Work at San Diego’s 2016 Comic-Con International event, said to be the Academy Awards of the comic book world.
4. Work alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.
Before John Lewis transitioned from activism to fighting for civil rights in Congress, he often worked alongside civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1963, he joined King among the many people who spoke at the famous March on Washington, an event well-known for King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
5. Congressional achievements
Lewis prioritized the same values during his time in Congress that he did as an activist, and he sometimes used his activism techniques in Congress as well. In 2016, Lewis led a two-day sit-in during which he and many other Democrats in the House of Representatives refused to leave Congress until Republicans voted on gun control measures. Though this sit-in did not succeed, its failure attested to some of Lewis’ most famous words:
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”