Following the passing of American Civil Rights Icon, John Lewis on Friday, July 17, author, activist and educator Bertie Simmons took to Facebook with a poignant message for her grandchildren about John Lewis and his legacy. Her words share the importance of John’s mission – which remains hers even today at age 86.
I am sure you are aware that an icon, Representative John Lewis, died Friday of pancreatic cancer. Representative Lewis was the son of a sharecropper who spent his lifetime fighting non-violently for racial equality. His death reminded me of the life-changing trip we took in 2003 to Gee’s Bend, Selma, and Montgomery, Alabama.
Lewis carried a cloak of authority when he entered Congress after having spent many years of his life in the bloody struggle to end the Jim Crow laws. He was one of ten young leaders who led the March on Washington, D.C. in 1963.
You will recall when we visited Selma, I discussed with you the three protest marches for voting rights that occurred during March 1965 over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis joined over 600 protesters during the first march. During this first march, state troopers and county police attacked the protesters with billy clubs and tear gas. Many, including Lewis, were injured when they passed over the bridge and stepped across the county line. Law Enforcement officers beat Amelia Boynton, one of the organizers, unconscious, and Lewis was beaten by a trooper resulting in a skull fracture. As a result, this event became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
There was a second march two days later led by Martin Luther King. When the troopers stepped back to permit the marchers to step over the county line, King directed the marchers to return to Brown A.M.E. Church in Selma where they had started. The third march started in Selma on March 21, 1965. Because Martin Luther King had been working with President Lyndon Johnson, the protestors could peacefully cross the bridge and march to Montgomery, the capitol of Alabama, while protected by the Alabama National Guard.
With all these facts in mind, when we visited Selma in the spring of 2003, one of our goals was to learn about the civil rights movement as it had occurred in Selma and Montgomery. We began at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church and marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and crossed over the county line. We spent time in the park that had been created under the bridge, and Austin, do you remember jumping upon the stage, throwing your arms up in the air and beginning to preach a sermon about the unjust treatment of the protestors of 1965?
After we left Selma, we visited the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama and learned of her bravery in the face of racial discrimination. If you will recall, while on this trip, we all gained a richer appreciation of the struggles experienced by the blacks before and during the civil rights movement. We also recommitted ourselves to the cause of social justice for all.
The passing of Representative John Lewis reminded me of our commitment and the need to take action to make the world a better place for all people. It is my hope that you, as young leaders, continue to accept this challenge and work with your mother and me in our efforts to fight for the cause of social justice. John Lewis set the example for bravery, commitment, and getting into “good trouble” to be on the right side of history. He was said to be the “conscience of Congress.” Let us follow his example.
This post originally appeared on Facebook, published with permission. Read more about Bertie’s own impressive advocacy in her book, Whispers of Hope: The Story of My Life.