For only the 12th time in its existence and the first time in over two years, tellthetruthonthem.com is inducting a new member into its Progressive Hall of Fame. This is a rare occurrence and I hope you continue to read.
In some ways I guess you could say Lewis’ path was clear in 1955 when a Martin Luther King speech showed the then 15 year old son of an Alabama sharecropper the way. In 1960 he was already active in the civil rights movement when he helped found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which went on to be better known as Snick.
At the age of 23 he was the youngest speaker when King gave his most famous rendition of what has come to be known as the “I have a dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Monument.
Lewis was much more than a figurehead and speaker; he was a young man of action. He was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders who endured arrest and worse in their efforts to register African-Americans to vote across the south. He was among the leaders on the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 – which in America is remembered as Bloody Sunday – for which he suffered a fractured skull. The attention he and others brought to the problem of Jim Crow racism in America ultimately was successful in leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In fact then-President Lyndon Johnson gave Lewis one of the pens he used to sign the Voting Rights Act into law.
In 1968 Lewis shifted his focus from influencing Congress from the outside to influencing it from within by running for and ultimately winning Georgia’s 5th Congressional district seat in the House of Representative which he held to his death this past weekend. During his time in the House Lewis was a proud progressive and civil right proponent. While always a rather quiet man, he was both brave and would not be silenced. He was a man of principle and on multiple occasions would publically differ with the president including fellow Democrats.
He boycotted the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush claiming that Bush was not the legitimate president (a view shared by many to this day). In 2017 he led the boycott of Donald Trump’s inauguration claiming Trump was an “Illegitimate” president.
In 2003 he saw another dream realized when the funding for the National Museum of African-American History on the National Mall was enacted.
In 2010 then-President Barack Obama conferred the nation’s highest civilian award, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, on him. (That was before Trump cheapened it during the 2020 State of the Union Address.)
Lewis was working until the last full day of his life when he penned a letter with Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Lewis left us holding the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Oversight of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Perhaps the most powerful character reference I can offer for Lewis is a somewhat personal one. I never had the honor of meeting him but I had the privilege of working on the 2012 Obama campaign with someone who knew him fairly well. About three decades separate Jonae Wartel and me. I came to know her as a cerebral, hardworking and dedicated yet quiet person, much like Lewis was often described. Jonae is originally from Lewis’ congressional district. One day his name came up in conversation and Jonae spoke of him in glowing terms. Jonae was not given to hyperbole; (one of the many things I respected about her.)
His death last weekend brought an end to his service to America and humanity and it is absolutely without reservation that we enshrine John Lewis in the Progressive Hall of Fame.
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