Those who gathered in Atlanta on Saturday were among the many people who marched in cities around the world to voice their strong resistance to Trump just a day after he was inaugurated. Marchers packed the streets of Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Boston, London, Paris, Melbourne, Australia and elsewhere.
About a week earlier, Lewis called Trump an illegitimate president and said he wouldn’t attend his inauguration. His remarks on NBC’s “Meet the Press” prompted an attack from the president, who took to Twitter with a response: “All talk, talk, talk – no actions or results. Sad!”
Many people, Democrats and Republicans alike, came to Lewis’s defense. Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) said Lewis “deserves all of our respect.” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Lewis “and his ‘talk’ have changed the world.”
The Georgia Democrat’s speech Saturday was a reminder of his role in 1963, when he marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington in a fight for civil rights for black people. The mile-long march from the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial, led by the Big Six, one of whom was Lewis, was the largest demonstration for human rights in U.S. history.
Lewis, then in his 20s and the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, spoke of a “social revolution.”
“By and large, politicians who build their career on immoral compromise and allow themselves an open forum of political, economic and social exploitation dominate American politics,” Lewis said then. “ . . . Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham? Where is the political party that will protect the citizens of Albany, Georgia?”
Growing up as a student in segregated schools in Alabama, he also led sit-ins to desegregate school lunch counters in Nashville. He was one of the original Freedom Riders who integrated bus terminals across the South, according to his biography.
At age 25, he was severely beaten during a protest in Selma, Ala. The confrontation on the day known as Bloody Sunday nearly killed Lewis and left him with a fractured skull.
In his short speech Saturday, Lewis said the country is in store for another fight for civil rights.
“We’re fighting for our sisters, for our mothers, for our daughters. We’re also fighting for our brothers, for our sons who are not able to stand up and fight for themselves. We have a moral obligation to fight, so never, ever lose hope,” Lewis said. “You know what, in my younger days, I got arrested and went to jail 40 times . . . And I may get arrested and go to jail again.”
But while Lewis’s speech began by reminiscing about the past, it ended by urging supporters to channel their energy for what lies ahead. He reminded supporters that they will soon have to exercise the right that many didn’t have in the 1960s.
“We cannot and must not stop now,” Lewis said. “Get people to register and vote. The next election, we must get out and vote like we’ve never, ever voted before.”
Several Democrats, particularly in the Senate, will face reelection in 2018 in states that Trump carried in November.
Lewis took the stage Saturday to chants of “Fifth District,” the Austin-American Statesman reported. The phrase was a reference to Lewis’s congressional district, which Trump blasted on Twitter, calling it “crime infested” and in “horrible shape.”
PolitiFact found that Trump’s claims were exaggerated. The 2015 unemployment and poverty rates in Lewis’s district, which he has represented since 1987, were higher than the state and national averages. But that same year, the percentage of people with high school and bachelor’s degrees in Georgia’s 5th District also were higher than state and national averages.
The feud with Lewis isn’t the first time that Trump has gotten into a public quarrel — during his campaign, he feuded with a beauty queen and also with the Muslim parents of a dead soldier. Lewis’s decision to boycott the inauguration, citing principle, also isn’t the first time he’s done so — he didn’t attend George W. Bush’s in 2001.
Cleve Wootson contributed to this story.