John Lewis, original illustration by Emogene Cataldo @by_emog

By Samaira Bunburry, age 12

The Southern sun shone down upon the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. Arms locked in arms, the sound of hundreds of footsteps thumped proudly, for this was the day that voices turned into power. And leading that crowd was John Lewis, a civil rights icon who would be a key factor in what would become known as Bloody Sunday. 

John Lewis, the son of an Alabama sharecropper, grew up in a segregated community, a segregated school and a segregated world. At a young age, he took an interest in civil rights, and as a young teenager, Lewis ignited his future as a civil rights leader by protesting the segregation of Troy State College (now Troy University). 

Wanting to continue to fight for social justice, Lewis undertook the study of nonviolent protest and became involved in sit-ins at many public segregated areas. As a Freedom Rider challenging segregation in Southern interstate bus terminals, he was beaten and arrested, which would be one of several arrests to come. “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die,” Lewis told CNN when reflecting upon the Freedom Riders 40 years later. 

By 1963, Lewis had been arrested for his role in social justice protests more than 20 times. By the age of just 23, he was considered to be one of the most prominent figures of the civil rights movement along with Martin Luther King Jr. and James Farmer. His words echoed through the crowd and in the hearts of many as he spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. “We are tired. We are tired of being beat by policemen,” Lewis said. “We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom, and we want it now.” Less than two years later, Lewis and several other civil rights leaders led 600 people on a 54-mile march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. 

While crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, the protesters were met by state troopers armed with clubs and tear gas who ordered them to turn back. Undeterred, the marchers stood their ground. The police charged and attacked the peaceful protesters where they stood. The protests which broke out across the country and world following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer feel reminiscent of this day on the bridge in Alabama. It is now the year 2020, and we are still seeing this violent response from police officers attempting to silence those who have spoken out against systemic racism in our society. John Lewis vowed to fight for change and to have his voice and the voices of all Black people heard.

After this violent attack on protesters in 1965, images from the scene played on television screens across the nation, broadcasting the fear in people’s eyes—just like today. Political divide started to spread across the nation—just like today. Those who were nonviolent were silenced—just like today. What people saw on Bloody Sunday shocked and appalled them. Many were then inspired to stage sit-ins and attend protests in solidarity with Black people. We saw this resurgence of social consciousness again after the video of George Floyd’s death went viral.

Lewis took his activism to a federal level. In 1987, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, where he served until his death on July 17, 2020. On March, 21, 2010, Lewis joined a press conference with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democratic Caucus Chair John Larson, who said they would “walk across the bridge”—just as Lewis had done 45 years earlier in Selma. The three linked arms and walked arm-in-arm across Independence Avenue to the Capitol. Two years later, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom.

History is repeating itself, or it never ended. The cycle of oppression has scarred this country. John Lewis was a leader, and in every historic moment there are leaders. That’s what we need now, someone to lead and inspire. John Lewis once said, “We may not have chosen the time, but the time has chosen us.” This is a time to lead, a time to stand together, a time to surpass silence.