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The Passing of Congressman John Lewis

From the President's Desk

To: The Rensselaer Community
Re: The Passing of Congressman John Lewis

It is with great sadness that I write to inform you of the death of Congressman John Lewis, renowned human rights and civil liberties pioneer, on July 17, 2020. He was 80 years old.

Congressman Lewis received a bachelor of arts degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, and he was a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville, Tennessee. 

In 2013, Congressman Lewis received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and was the speaker for the 207th Commencement. Congressman Lewis was a “profile in courage,” an extraordinary example of the power of an individual to change the world. At about the same age as our students, he stood up for what was right by sitting down at lunch counters, walking across a bridge in Selma, and marching on Washington. In doing so, with a persistent commitment to non-violence, he helped lead our nation through the civil rights era to a new day. Long considered the “conscience of the U.S. Congress,” for more than a half century he remained steadfast in his pursuit of equality, justice, and fairness for all. We were honored to have this Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and true American hero address the graduates at Rensselaer. 

During his address, Congressman Lewis urged graduates to build stronger communities. “What we can learn from the history of the March on Washington is that democracy is not a state. It is an act,” said Congressman Lewis. “We will never reach a place in our democracy where we can finally sit down. We will never reach a place where we can put away our responsibility as citizens and leave our job to others. Our society requires you and me to get off the sidelines and get in the game.” These words are as true today as they were in 2013.

In 2010, Congressman Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Barack Obama. “Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did,” former President Obama said in a written tribute. “And 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.”

Before he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the Fifth Congressional District in Georgia in 1986, Congressman Lewis compiled an impressive track record that led many civil and human rights leaders to call him one of the most courageous persons the civil rights movement ever produced. Roll Call magazine once said, “John Lewis…is a genuine American hero and moral leader who commands widespread respect in the chamber.” 

As a young man from Troy, Alabama, Congressman Lewis was inspired by the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As a student at Fisk University, Congressman Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville. During the height of the civil rights movement, from 1963 to 1966, Congressman Lewis was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activism in the movement.

While still a young man, Congressman Lewis became a nationally recognized leader, and was dubbed one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement. At the age of 23, he was an architect of, and a keynote speaker at, the historic March on Washington in August, 1963, where Dr. King would give his historic "I Have a Dream" speech. Congressman Lewis, at an age when most people had just begun their professional careers, also stood atop the Lincoln Memorial and gave a rousing speech about the importance of fighting for civil rights. "We are tired," Congressman Lewis said in his speech. "We are tired of being beaten by policemen. 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."

In 1964, Lewis coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The following year, Congressman Lewis helped spearhead one of the most seminal moments of the civil rights movement. Hosea Williams, another notable civil rights leader, and Lewis led more than 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, intending to march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday,” which helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

After leaving SNCC in 1966, he continued his commitment to the civil rights movement as associate director of the Field Foundation and his participation in the Southern Regional Council’s voter registration programs. Congressman Lewis went on to become the director of the Voter Education Project. In 1977, Congressman Lewis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency. 

He was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981, and was elected to Congress in 1986, and served until his death. He served as a Chief Deputy Whip from 1991 until his death, and as Senior Chief Deputy Whip from 2003 until his death.

Congressman Lewis was the recipient of numerous awards from national and international institutions, including the highest civilian honor granted by former President Barack Obama—the Medal of Freedom, the Lincoln Medal from the historic Ford’s Theatre, the Golden Plate Award given by the Academy of Excellence, the Preservation Hero award given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Capital Award of the National Council of La Raza, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, the President’s Medal of Georgetown University, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the National Education Association Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Award, and the only John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for Lifetime Achievement ever granted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. 

He authored a book titled Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change (2012), and his biography is titled Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998).

In 2014, the film Selma depicted the events of Congressman Lewis' historic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and was released to wide acclaim. He recreated the journey across the bridge in March 2015, but this time with Barack Obama, America's first Black president.

Lewis was married for 44 years to Lillian Miles, who died in 2012. They had one son, John-Miles, who survives Congressman Lewis. 

Our deepest thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and colleagues of Congressman Lewis. Our nation has lost a great American hero.