Tribute was written by Kevin W. Williams, Legal Program Director,
Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition Civil Rights Legal Program
“We are one people with one family. We’ll live in the same house . . . and through books, through information, we must find a way to say to people that we must lay down the burden of hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”* – Rep. John Lewis (All quotations throughout this CCDC Memorial blog are the words of John Lewis himself unless otherwise noted).
This tribute allows John Lewis to speak for himself in the humble yet powerful way only he could.
The disability rights movement owes an enormous debt of gratitude to John Lewis, who died on July 17, 2020. His was indeed a life well-lived. He was our teacher and demonstrated why, in so many ways, “Black Lives Matter!” Congressional representatives on both sides of the aisle referred to him as the “Conscience of the Congress,” and Congress will never be the same without him. His life, his perspective, his commitment stayed with him until the day he died. We need and miss him, especially now, and always will.
In 1961, John Lewis became one of the original 13 Freedom Riders; the group made up of seven black and six white Americans. They were determined to ride from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans in an integrated fashion. Much of this work was attributed to his involvement with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Congress of Racial Equality. He and the other Freedom Riders were severely beaten and jailed as they entered the southern states.
“We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal. We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back.”*
The disability community took all of its cues from John Lewis when shutting down the Regional Transportation District (RTD) in Denver, Colorado. The Gang of 19 threw themselves out of their wheelchairs and blocked buses overnight on the busiest street in Denver – Colfax Avenue between Broadway and Lincoln. The Gang of 19 was responsible for forcing RTD to be the first transportation system in the country to install wheelchair lifts on its buses. All of the tactics for making this happen can be attributed to the work of John Lewis.
Denied the right to vote, he and the other marchers refused to give up! Even as he led the march (literally — he was at the front of the line) across the bridge, at which point the Alabama State Patrol took a billy club to his head before arresting him. John Lewis, following in the steps of Dr. Martin Luther King, understood and believed in the theory of nonviolent protest. He and those with him demonstrated to this country and the world that those who are willing to risk everything (their bodies, arrest, and even death) without using violence have great power to show the oppressor. Despite repeated attempts to stop the protesters from attaining the same rights enjoyed by all others, they just kept coming back. The message was and, as we have seen with the latest “Black Lives Matter” marches and protests, is powerful. For a while, the nonviolent protest strategies used by John Lewis changed the hearts and minds of many – but not all. And he lived just long enough to see how his efforts and those he orchestrated can still be taken away. Meaning the fight goes on, and we must be prepared to continue.
Indeed, the disability rights movement would not have existed without an understanding of how John Lewis and those of like mind showed this country what injustice looks like and why it can not be tolerated.
“You must be bold, brave, and courageous and find a way… to get in the way.”*
“I want to see young people in America feel the spirit of the 1960s and find a way to get in the way. To find a way to get in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.”*
CCDC also sees the involvement of young people with disabilities as a top priority as we navigate through very uncertain times – viewing the progress we have made and seeing what is left for us to do or do over again.
“I say to people today, you must be prepared if you believe in something. If you believe in something, you have to go for it. As individuals, we may not live to see the end.”*
“Never give up. Never give in. Never become hostile . . . HATE is too big a burden to bear.”*
Lewis earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University after graduating from The American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. As a student and member of the Nashville Student Movement, he was responsible for organizing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.
“When you see something that is not right, not fear, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”*
In 1961, Lewis, as one of the Freedom Riders, was beaten by angry mobs, arrested, and at times, taken to jail.
“We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal. We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back,” Lewis said towards the end of his life regarding his perseverance following the acts of violence.*
In 1963, he became the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the youngest chairman ever to have led the organization that focused solely upon enforcing the civil rights of Black Americans through the use of nonviolent protest. Before that, he was an active participant in the Nashville Student Movement, whose first mission was to desegregate lunch counters, which were ultimately successful.
“Some of us give a little blood for the right to participate in the democratic process.”*
Many reports state that before becoming a United States Representative, John Lewis was arrested and beaten 40 times during non-violent protests and five times after his election. Despite all of the mistreatment, terrible beatings, arrests for engaging in activity already protected by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution (like voting), Lewis had this to say:
“If you’re not hopeful and optimistic, then you give up. You have to take the long hard look and just believe that if you’re consistent, you will succeed.”*
John Lewis was also the youngest speaker during the March on Washington in 1963. He was asked to tone down his speech for being “too radical.”
Many of the strategies and decision-making that went into the protests organized in large part by John Lewis and SNCC were then used by those in the disability rights movement that created organizations like ADAPT and CCDC. The sit-in protests were continued by John Lewis even when he was a member of the House of Representatives. This purpose and meaning behind this particular method of protesting certainly have not been lost on the disability civil rights community.
John Lewis did go on to become the United States Congressional Representative from the Fifth District of the state of Georgia from January 3, 1987, until his death on July 17, 2020. His legislative accomplishments are too many to list, as well as his achievements before becoming a member of Congress.
“If someone had told me in 1963 that one day I would be in Congress, I would’ve said, ‘you’re crazy. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’”*
Not only did John Lewis become a Congressman for the Fifth District of Georgia, but he also served 16 terms in that position. He eventually became the Chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight for the House of Representatives Committee and Ways in Means, the leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the senior chief deputy whip in the Democratic caucus.
In these roles, Representative Lewis accomplished a great deal for not only the Black Community but for all people — the human community.
The disability community and everyone who works for the social justice of all people and recognize as John Lewis did —
“[We] really believe that all of us, as Americans . . . we all need to be treated like fellow human beings.”*
Unfortunately, the “Conscience of the Congress” is now gone. Fortunately, he survived his pancreatic cancer just long enough to see the creation of the “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and watch those who have been protesting racial injustice and police brutality against Black Americans throughout the country grow to a massive scale.
A champion of justice, a believer in peaceful and nonviolent resistance, a fellow human being standing against the oppression of anyone, and one of the few genuinely decent human beings, John Lewis will be missed. Nevertheless, the young activist individuals who joined the House of Representatives in 2018 are there in no small part due to the legacy of John Lewis. At this critical time in American history, we must all follow Lewis’s words of wisdom and continue our commitment to social justice for all people, including people with disabilities. Rest assured, CCDC will carry on fighting – just as the “Conscience of the Congress” did and expected others to do as well.