Since his death on July 17, Congressman John Lewis has been on the minds and in the hearts of many Americans. In speeches and informal conversations, people across the nation are recounting his courage, compassion and commitment to advancing social justice through non-violence.
Born on Feb. 21, 1940, the 17-term congressman from Georgia was the senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus. During his career of civil rights advocacy, Rep. Lewis was arrested more than 40 times. In a tweet posted a week before his death, Rep. Lewis wrote, “59 years ago today I was released from Parchman Farm Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson, MS for using a so-called ‘white’ restroom during the Freedom Rides of 1961.”
Widely known as the “conscience of Congress,” Rep. Lewis has long inspired people to be their best selves. As a speaker at the Library of Congress opening of the exhibition, “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words,” Rep. Lewis said, “Rosa Parks inspired us to get in trouble … to get in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Evanston residents of all ages are among people across the globe who are mourning the loss of the civil rights icon. Many say they are inspired now more than ever to “get in good trouble.”
Logan Cheeks, a 2020 graduate of Evanston Township High School, said he and his family had the opportunity to attend several events where Rep. Lewis was a speaker. Most memorable for Mr. Cheeks was a speaking engagement at ETHS on Aug. 29, 2016, sponsored by the Family Action Network (FAN), where Rep. Lewis urged all people to “speak up and speak out” about injustice.
“He’s such an inspirational man, and he has really done a lot of things that are important in paving the way for other Black men and women to be able to keep pushing for equal rights,” said Mr. Cheeks, who will be a first-year student at Northern Illinois University this fall.
It is not surprising that Rep. Lewis has had an immeasurable impact on today’s young leaders. He was the youngest speaker during the March on Washington in 1963, and he has stood out as a giant in the civil rights movement throughout his life. His last public appearance was in June at Black Lives Matter Plaza just outside the White House, where his funeral procession paused on Monday morning.
Amalia Loiseau (ETHS 2018), a third year student at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a young leader who was inspired by Rep. Lewis when she took action to change policing in Evanston and beyond. Ms. Loiseau is one of eight ETHS graduates who organized the Evanston Fight for Black Lives march and rally on May 31, where an estimated 5,000 people of all ages peacefully protested the murders of Black Americans at the hands of vigilantes and law enforcement.
“After this work in Evanston, it’s made me realize that this work can be taken anywhere. I’m involved in a consulting organization at U. of I. We focus on specific issues within the Champaign-Urbana community. For example, I was working on a capstone project last summer to identify issues regarding housing affordability for immigrant families. We’re looking at a lot of different social issues in the community, and finding ways to use social entrepreneurship to fix those issues. So it helps me realize that it’s not difficult to make an impact wherever you are,” said Ms. Loiseau.
Retired educator and Evanston community leader Oliver Ruff saw Rep. Lewis as a leader who bridged the gap between generations.
“He was a person who worked with people who are now older, but he was always very relevant because he was also able to do a lot for the current population. … As he came along, all of what he did was very relevant to everybody,” said Mr. Ruff.
Shawn Johnson (ETHS 2019), a second year student at Morehouse College, said that his generation is very aware of the impact that Rep. Lewis has had on their lives.
“It was a strong life that he lived. He was just such a prominent figure in our history. … All kids know about John Lewis, just as much as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. He did so much for the Black community and was such a strong activist. … Seeing Rep. Lewis being honored by young people on social media and on the Internet, it shows how big a person he was to us and to the world,” said Mr. Johnson.
Sarah Parisien, a 2020 ETHS graduate who will attend University of Missouri-Columbia in the fall, said she was inspired in many ways by Rep. Lewis.
“My freshman year, I actually had the privilege of meeting him when he came to ETHS through the Family Action Network, an organization I later became a part of, which is really awesome. In reading his graphic novel memoire (“March,” co-written with Andrew Aydin), I got to meet Rep. Lewis. I think the whole notion of ‘good trouble’ is exactly what we need in times like this. So I think he’s created this legacy behind him that young people can pick up on, and you know, take further with them,” said Ms. Parisien, who delivered Class Remarks at the high school’s first virtual graduation ceremony in June, when the pandemic resulted in nearly all in-person gatherings being cancelled.
Sophia Brown (ETHS 2020) was also deeply touched by the Congressman’s remarks during his visit to the high school.
“When I heard that he passed away, it hit me hard. Even though I didn’t meet him personally, I still felt a strong connection to him when he spoke at our school,” said Ms. Brown, who will attend Tulane University in New Orleans this fall. “I’m going to major in biochemistry, and hopefully go into the medical field, so I will be able to help people there,” said Ms. Brown.
Elise Johnson is another 2020 ETHS graduate and young leader who expressed both sadness and hopefulness as she reflected on the life of Rep. Lewis.
“His passing was something that was very sad for me to hear. But I try to take all his messages with me. I try to take all the messages that he taught about civil rights to any protests I was already planning on going to. And then in the ways I am educating myself – doing a lot more reading. I joined a book club that my friends started to learn more about race relations,” said Ms. Johnson, who will begin her first year at Pomona College in Claremont, Ca this fall. Like many of her fellow ETHS grads, Elise will have remote, online instruction and reside in Evanston during her first semester of college.
Briyana Jackson (ETHS 2018), a third-year student at Texas Southern University in Houston, acknowledged that words cannot necessarily sum up the life of an incredible American hero.
“The passing of Rep. John Lewis – I don’t even know how to put it into words. He was a wonderful, amazing man to everyone and he was very inspiring. We all looked up to him, and just wish the best for his family and for those who are aspiring to go in the same direction as he went,” said Ms. Jackson.
A six-day celebration of the life of a man known to many as the moral compass of the nation began on Saturday morning in his hometown of Troy, Ala., with a public service at Troy University. Later that day, a private ceremony was held at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Alabama before a public viewing there.
The following day, on Sunday, the funeral caisson crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where, as a young member of the Student nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Rep. Lewis and others who were demonstrating for voting rights, were attacked and beaten by law enforcement officials on March 7, 1965. On his final journey across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Rep. Lewis was saluted by Alabama state troopers, the same force that beat him and his fellow peaceful demonstrators on what is known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Rep. Lewis will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol, Alabama State Capitol and Georgia State Capitol throughout the week. He will be only the second Black legislator to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol, following the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, who died in October, 2019. Rep. Lewis, however, is the first Black lawmaker to lie in the Capitol Rotunda, reserved for the America’s presidents and other honored statemen.
The Congressman will be buried on Thursday at South View Cemetery in Atlanta, following a private funeral at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. His family has issued public statements discouraging people from traveling to the Capitol to pay respects to the late Congressman amid the continuing spread of the novel coronavirus. Instead, the family has asked for tributes to be virtual, using the hashtags #BelovedCommunity or #HumanDignity.
Aug. 29, 2016: Civil Rights Hero John Lewis Inspires Full House at ETHS, by Shawn Jones
The civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis, who urged people to “speak up and speak out” about injustice, spoke at Evanston Township High School on Aug. 29, 2016, at an event sponsored by the Family Action Network. Shawn Jones, then City reporter for the RoundTable, is among those who feel privileged to have been among the crowd that packed the ETHS auditorium to its 1,500-seat capacity when Rep. Lewis spoke. Mr. Jones posted the following story about the event.
Georgia congressman John Lewis, who in March 1965 stood at the front of a line of marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Ala., only to be beaten unconscious by Alabama state troopers, appeared before a rapt crowd at Evanston Township High School to talk about his graphic novel trilogy “March.” Congressman Lewis appeared with the work’s coauthor, Andrew Aydin, in an event sponsored by the Family Action Network.
Congressman Lewis spoke first, sharing a brief portion of his biography starting as the “boy from Troy” who raised chickens for his family but went on to college in Nashville, Tenn. It was there he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., whom he met in Montgomery, and Rosa Parks.
“February 1960 was my first arrest,” he said. “I felt liberated. I felt free.” He described buying a new suit because he “wanted to look sharp, fresh and clean if I was going to jail. …
“If I still had that suit today, I could probably sell it on eBay for a lot of money.”
Congressman Lewis talked about the “distance we’ve come and the progress we’ve made.” But he encouraged the mostly young attendees to continue to “speak up and speak out” when they “see something that is not right, not fair, not just.”
Currently, he said, “there are forces in America that want to take us back. But we must say over and over again, ‘We have come too far. We are not going back.’”
Congressman Lewis then turned to his and Mr. Aydin’s three volume graphic novel, saying, “It is our hope that “March” inspires another generation to stand up and speak out. … Never ever be afraid. Never lose hope. Never give up. And never hate.”
Mr. Aydin followed, calling himself the child of a Muslim immigrant who some in American say “shouldn’t be allowed here.” He said he grew out his beard to purposely highlight his Muslim background, even though he grew up Methodist raised by a single mother.
The beard “is not a political statement,” Mr. Aydin said. “It is not political to say, ‘You shouldn’t hate people.’”
Mr. Aydin then talked about the origin of “March,” saying he grew up reading comic books and tried to get the Lewis campaign behind his idea to write a graphic novel version of Mr. Lewis’s story. Mr. Lewis ultimately agreed, and “the first graphic novel ever to win the RFK book award” was born.