The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How John Lewis caught the conscience of the nation

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) on Capitol Hill in Washington in September 2005.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) on Capitol Hill in Washington in September 2005. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
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JOHN LEWIS was not really an “icon,” although that overused term was often applied to him. He was a living, breathing, bleeding human being, whose savage clubbing at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, with news cameras recording it all, shocked millions of people into no longer ignoring the violent system of racial oppression and segregation that prevailed in a large part of this country. A good many other marchers were beaten and firehosed on that day in 1965, but it was Mr. Lewis who caught the conscience of the nation. Though young, he was by then a well-known leader in the civil rights movement and had been roughed up and jailed many times. Through all of it, he adhered to the principles of nonviolence, which he never abandoned over his many years in public life.

John R. Lewis, front-line civil rights leader and eminence of Capitol Hill, dies at 80

Mr. Lewis might have had reason to hate. One of 10 children in an Alabama sharecropping family (“. . . it was a system designed to make us fail”), he recalled going proudly to market for the first time with his father, a man he loved and revered — and seeing him treated as less than a man by white people. “But living on that farm,” he wrote, “enveloped by the contrasting purity and innocence of nature, often sequestered from a world that seemed tragically unjust and unfair, I searched inside myself and developed an ability to hear my inner voice speak.”

Mr. Lewis hoped, when the Supreme Court outlawed school desegregation, that he would soon be meeting new people and making new friends, and he was bitterly disappointed when it didn’t happen. In time, as he grew and learned, at a seminary and at Fisk University, he resolved to protest the unfairness he saw and to fight it through nonviolent example. The fractured skull he suffered on the Pettus bridge, and the country’s reaction to the sight of dogs and clubs being turned on peaceful protesters, helped bring about a milestone: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As many in the movement turned to black power and other forms of radical action, Mr. Lewis stayed true to his integrationist and pacifist convictions. He won local office and then a seat in Congress, where he served since 1987, much of that time as a member of the Democratic leadership. He was one of the most liberal members of Congress and also one of the most respected, by members on both sides of the aisle. He led by example and with courage. In a time when the president talks constantly of his “toughness,” John Lewis stood for the real thing.

In his 2012 book, “Across That Bridge,” Mr. Lewis writes about a former Klansman who participated in a vicious 1961 attack on him and other Freedom Riders in Rock Hill, S.C. Many years later, the man came to Mr. Lewis seeking forgiveness, which was unhesitatingly granted. “I was surprised,” Mr. Lewis writes of his attacker, “to hear him clearly restate forty-eight years later the essence of what I had said to the police officer as I declined to press charges almost half a century earlier: ‘We’re not here to cause trouble. We’re here so that people will love each other.’ . . . The impact we left was undeniable.”

Yes, it was, and far beyond Rock Hill, S.C.

Read more:

Colbert I. King: John Lewis will always be with us

David Greenberg: ‘Invictus’ was among John Lewis’s favorite poems. It captures his indomitable spirit.

Jonathan Capehart: John Lewis practiced what he preached. We are a better nation for it.

David Von Drehle: With the deaths of John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, it seems history is trying to send us a message