USA: The death of civil rights icon John Lewis and hopes for America

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John Lewis the USA US civil rights icon John Lewis died on July 17, 2020, of pancreatic cancer, aged 80 years old.

He had been since 1987 the U.S. Democratic Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, serving his 17th term in the House.

Mr Lewis was one of the fearless civil rights leaders named the “Big Six” (included Martin Luther King Jr, ) credited with organising the historic August 28, 1963, march in Washington, aimed at sensitizing the racial dichotomy in the USA and to advocate for the civil and economic rights of African Americans. John Lewis the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was only 23-year-old  when he addressed hundreds of thousands of participants at the Lincoln Memorial in Washing DC during the apex of racial segregation in the USA. The epic civil rights march was attended by at least a quarter-million participants and covered by more than 3,000 members of the press. It was during the historic march that Martin Luther King gave the famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

It did not take long before the civil march became fruitful. After years of peaceful protests for civil rights and lobbying by The NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ) the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was born. President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. This was followed one year later, by the signing of the National Voting Rights Act of 1965. The two laws outlawed discrimination against blacks and women in the USA, and for that matter, put an end to racial segregation, and disenfranchisement of blacks. That effectively made discriminatory voting practices unconstitutional. Even though the legislative war was won, discrimination is still part of everyday social reality in the USA.  Lewis never relented in his fight for justice in his country and far beyond.

Since his death was announced, rain of tributes has been pouring in from leaders and public in praise of Lewis’ legacy. President  Barack Obama lamented that the USA  has lost a great leader. 

“Not many of us get to live to see own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did. Thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise.” President Obama lamented.

President George W Bush said Lewis, whom Bill Clinton described as “the conscience of the nation,”  had “worked to make our country a more perfect union.”

President Jimmy Carter described Lewis as someone who had  “made an indelible mark on history through his quest to make our nation more just.”

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, on the other hand, called the former congressman “truly one-of-a-kind, a moral compass.”

Vice-President Mike Pence named John Lewis “a great man whose courage and decades of public service changed America forever.”

Rev Jesse Jackson civil rights activist, who first met John Lewis in 1960, called him the epitome of “what patriotism and courage look like.”

Unlike other leaders and individuals who have shown their sadness about Lewis ‘death and showered his civil rights credentials with praises, President Donald Trump initially did not react to Lewis’ death, instead, the President was allegedly playing golf. Hours later, after messages were issued by other US politicians and many news media started reporting about President Trump’s silence, Trump sent a short twitter message that he was “Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to him and his family.”

Like former Republican Senator John McCain and Congressman Elijah Eugene Cummings, John Lewis had often criticised President Trump’s unpresidential behaviours; little wonder why President Trump hardly hid his alleged indifference to his death.

Many other foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, have also paid tribute and recalled the immense achievements of the civil right juggernaut.

As the  flags were flown at half-mast on Saturday morning in honour of  the departed civil right mahogany,  Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the civil rights activist, summed up the legacy of John Lewis:  

“From a historical standpoint, there are few who are able to become giants… John Lewis really became a giant through his examples that he set for all of us.”

Many have argued that the historic 1963 March on Washington has rejuvenated and invigorated the racial consciousness in the USA. Others believe that the death of Martin Luther jr. decelerated of the fulfilment of racial equality in the USA. As one of the “Big Six” civil right leaders, who orchestrated the 1963 march, John Lewis and other civil rights activists continued the struggle after Martin Luther’s death. Lewis never mimicked the word in his condemnations of inequality and injustice in the US. And he hardly let the world down. Not even the war against pancreatic cancer could tame his untamable spirit.

Although John Lewis lost the war against cancer, that loss has demonstrated the mortal side of him and the brevity of life. John Lewis’ soul is still very much alive. Yes, alive in the angry souls of those brave men and women around the world, who have put aside their colour, race, religion, class to fight and demand justice and fairness in the treatment of their fellow human beings. The heartless extermination of the youthful life George Floyd – and other innocent souls – in the hands of the barbaric police has reinvigorated the call for equality, fairness and justice for all.  

Not even the brutish force of the police brutality or paranoid racists could cage their combatant courage and resilience.  The only true and fulfilling reward we can give to John Lewis is to create harmonious and egalitarian societies around the world, where one can live in love, peace, equality and justice. Which other better way can one put a smile on the searching soul of John Lewis than to help fulfil his dream, which he sacrificed all to achieve?

Image: NYT/CNN