August 4, 2020
By Dawn M. Jones
Atlanta Daily World
To the Editor:
U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis of Atlanta, whose passing on July 17, has been mourned worldwide over the past two weeks, was neither a lawyer nor a judge. However, his lifelong devotion to and leadership on the front line of the fight for equal rights had a profound influence on our American justice system.
Therefore, on behalf of the 52,000-plus members of the State Bar of Georgia, I am writing to express our sincere appreciation and pay tribute to the life of this icon of the Civil Rights Movement, a great Georgian and hero to so many Americans and people all over the world.
The youngest speaker at the March on Washington at 23 years old, from the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, Congressman Lewis outlined in plain language what the civil rights and voting rights laws then under consideration needed to include. “We must have legislation that will protect the Mississippi sharecropper who is put off his farm because he dares to register to vote,” he said. “We need a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation. We need a bill that will ensure the equality of a maid who earns $5 a week in a home of a family whose total income is $100,000 a year. … How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.”
By that time, Congressman Lewis had already organized sit-ins that were responsible for the desegregation of lunch counters in downtown Nashville and was one of the original Freedom Riders, who sought to pressure the federal government to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court decision desegregating interstate bus travel. For his efforts, Congressman Lewis was repeatedly arrested and jailed. At the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, state troopers fractured his skull with their nightsticks. Governments and police departments throughout the South considered Congressman Lewis to be on the wrong side of the law, but as we all know, he was on the right side of history.
And he pressed on, working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to bend the arc of the universe towards justice. Through the efforts of Congressman Lewis, Dr. King, and many other dedicated activists, The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act became the law of the land. Later, Congressman Lewis served as associate director of the federal ACTION program during the Jimmy Carter administration and was elected in 1981 to the Atlanta City Council, where he served until his election in 1986 to the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District.
During his nearly 34 years in Congress, Congressman Lewis earned the respect of his colleagues on both sides of the political aisle but never compromised his outspokenness against injustice and unequal treatment of Americans based on race, gender and sexual orientation. “Once people begin to see the similarities between themselves and others,” Congressman Lewis said, “instead of focusing on differences, they come to recognize that equality is essentially a matter of human rights and human dignity.”
Often referred to as the “conscience of Congress,” Congressman Lewis served as chief deputy whip of the House Democratic Caucus and chaired the Oversight Subcommittee of the influential House Ways & Means Committee. In 2006, Congressman Lewis was described by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as the “only former major civil rights leader who extended his fight for human rights and racial reconciliation to the halls of Congress.” He introduced legislation in 1988 to establish a national African-American history museum in Washington and worked for 15 years to secure the bipartisan support needed for it to become a reality. Throughout his time in Congress, Congressman Lewis continued to get into his self-described “good trouble,” including his organization of a sit-in by Democrats on the House floor to demand a vote on gun safety legislation in 2016.
The life’s work of John Robert Lewis will have a lasting, positive impact on the rule of law in the United States and in every state therein, including Georgia. Although much work remains, America and its justice system are better for his leadership and influence. Georgia’s legal community extends condolences to Congressman Lewis’ wonderful family, members of his staff, colleagues and multitude of friends on their personal loss. We appreciate Congressman Lewis’ many contributions that will benefit our justice system for generations ahead. And we will continue his legacy by getting into “good trouble” to effectuate positive change in our justice system.
Dawn M. Jones
President, State Bar of Georgia