Vinson: Black History Month: U.S. Representative John Lewis -Bleeding for a Cause!

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In the previous column there was mention of a war of words between President Donald Trump and U.S. Representative John Lewis, a black Democrat who has been serving Georgia's 5th District since 1987.

Okay, so we have a black politician lashing out at the irascible, says-whatever's-on-his-mind Trump. Nothing mystical about that, correct? In fact, we should expect a cataclysmic flood of the same in the future.

More on point regarding this column, though, I'll ask: How much do you actually know about U.S. legislator John Lewis? If the answer is "not much," maybe the following will help out. He is a man worth taking the time to know; his resume is an impressive one.

John Lewis was born to sharecropper parents in Troy, Alabama, February 21, 1940. Lewis had several siblings. It has been written that John Lewis saw "only two white people in his life until age 6." After graduating from high school, Lewis attended American Baptist Theological Seminary and, also, Fisk University, both located in Nashville, Tennessee. While attending school in Nashville, Lewis became a disciple of "nonviolence," the social-civil platform of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Though Lewis had met King in 1957, the two would become cause-driven comrades of the highest order over the course of the next few years.

*Nashville Sit-Ins:

As of the early 1960s, blacks were refused service at "whites-only" lunch counters in department stores in downtown Nashville. Using the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Plessy vs. Ferguson -"separate but equal"--as ammunition, Reverend James Lawson, a divinity student at Vanderbilt University, was the architect of the Nashville Sit-Ins. He picked level-headed activists to go to these "whites-only" lunch counters and peacefully demand service. Among those participating, along with others, were John Lewis, Diane Nash, and Marion Barry (future mayor of the District of Columbia/Washington, D.C.). Records indicate the Nashville Sit-Ins lasted from February 13 - May 10, 1960. Though the black Sit-In protesters were attacked and arrested during the mentioned time frame, six downtown Nashville stores capitulated and began serving black customers at their lunch counters for the first time on May 10, 1960. It was a major breakthrough for the civil rights movement, and John Lewis was a key component of the Nashville Sit-Ins.

*Freedom Rides:

Though the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956 had softened segregation on public busing, as of 1961, segregated seating still prevailed regarding interstate bus travel. Black activists felt a challenge was in order. Led by Congress of Racial Equality/CORE Director James Farmer, the first Freedom Ride began on May 4, 1961, with 13 participants: 7 blacks, 6 whites. Their logistical-strategic course of action was to travel through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, ending in New Orleans, Louisiana, where a civil rights victory rally was planned. Though the Freedom Riders' cause was noble, they encountered depraved, life-threatening opposition once they reached Alabama, considered the most segregated state in the U.S.

*Anniston, Alabama; May 14, 1961:

A KKK-led mob stormed a Freedom Riders' bus, a Greyhound, firebombed it, and beat the riders. A second Freedom Riders' bus, a Trailways, arrived in Anniston about an hour later and also was attacked. The Trailways bus made it to Birmingham, Alabama, where it, too, was met by a frenzied KKK mob, who attacked the Freedom Riders.

Under intense pressure, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy promised the Freedom Riders a bus and safe passage from Birmingham, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama. Activist John Lewis joined the Freedom Riders for the Birmingham-to-Montgomery ride. On May 20, 1961, the Freedom Riders' bus reached Montgomery and was met by yet another angry mob which savagely beat the riders, including John Lewis, who was left bloodied.

*Selma, Alabama:

As of 1965, John Lewis was an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee/SNCC, and a rising star in the civil rights movement. On March 7, 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams, a colleague of Reverend Martin Luther Jr., attempted to lead a march of some 600 protesters from Selma to the Montgomery, in an effort secure voting rights for blacks in the South. The protesters were met at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma by Alabama State Troopers, who ordered the protesters to disperse. However, the protesters refused, though they never acted aggressively. The troopers--some on foot, some on horseback--rushed the protesters with whips, nightsticks, and tear gas, and beat them back to Selma. The brutal scene was captured on television and came to be known as "Bloody Sunday."

Recalling Bloody Sunday, John Lewis stated: "I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I had a concussion at the bridge. My legs went out from under me. I felt like I was going to die. I thought I saw Death" (reference: Independent Global News, March 7, 2015).

U.S. Representative John Lewis, a man willing to bleed for a cause, a man worth knowing.

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Mike Vinson
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