John Lewis’ Example Spurred Black Activists to Seek Office

People gathered on a bridge
John Lewis, President Barack Obama and others on the Edmund Pettis Bridge

Five years ago, President Barack Obama clasped the left hand of Rep. John Lewis and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in remembrance of a bloody civil rights battle the congressman had waged five decades before.

Lewis told Obama about the state troopers who assaulted him and other nonviolent protesters on that same bridge in 1965 as they called for expanded voting rights for Black citizens. Obama said men such as Lewis helped create a more “just America.”

“It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes,” the former president told a crowd of onlookers. “And John Lewis is one of my heroes.”

The historic moment from March 7, 2015, is emblematic of the generational and tactical shifts taking place among Black politicians. The death of Lewis, a Democrat who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, means the ranks of Black politicians propelled into office by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s continues to thin.

The old guard still wields influence. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest ranking Black member in Congress, is frequently credited with turning around Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in February, putting the former vice president on the road to the Democratic nomination.

But now, Black lawmakers are increasingly adopting the policies and language of a surging Black Lives Matter movement as more Americans express outrage over racial inequities. And a new breed of organizers is following a path Lewis helped invent — from civil rights activist to political officeholder.


Civil rights icon John Lewis


Lewis “turned his activism into legislative action,” said Rashawn Ray, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “You have to sit at the table and negotiate, and I think there is going to be a group of 18- to 30-year olds who have already been thinking in that vein, but are now going to use John Lewis as a direct model because of the attention that’s coming with his death.”

That shift has started. Younger leaders shaped by or part of the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement are running for — and sometimes winning — positions in local and state offices, and even Congress.

In 2016, Kimberly Foxx, running on a platform of criminal justice reform, became the first African American woman elected as Cook County (Ill.) State’s Attorney. She now leads the second largest prosecutor’s office in the U.S.

Activist DeRay Mckesson, who came to prominence during the protests over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, unsuccessfully ran for mayor in his hometown of Baltimore in 2016. Last year, Lezley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, lost her bid for a City Council seat in Ferguson.

On Friday, Jamaal Bowman, a Black middle school principal who’s experienced police brutality first hand, was declared the winner over 16-term New York Rep. Eliot Engel in a Democratic primary, all but assuring him of a win in November’s election.

“I am not so worried about someone taking the baton to continue to legacy of John Lewis,” said Andre Perry, author of “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities.” “I see John Lewis in Black Lives Matter today.”

The 116th Congress began as the most racially and ethnically diverse, with 56 Black lawmakers among the 116 non-white members.


Mayor of Washington, D.C. Muriel Bowser and Congressman Rep. John Lewis (GA) are seen in Black Lives Matter Plaza, in front of the White House,
in Washington, D.C. June 7, 2020. (Photo by Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


In recent years, some of those lawmakers, chiefly Democrats, have climbed the seniority ladder to powerful positions, including Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus; Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee; and the late Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who chaired the House Oversight Committee before he died in 2019.

Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, worked with Lewis as an activist in the 1960s. “We never thought back then that we would be successful enough in the movement to both end up serving in Congress together,” Clyburn said in a statement. “Yet, for almost 27 years we did, because he never lost faith.”

The Congressional Black Caucus, led by Californian Rep. Karen Bass, also played a significant role in the House’s recent passage of a sweeping criminal justice bill.

“They are being affected by the … Black Lives movement,” Ray said about the CBC, which has existed in its current form since 1971. “Everyone has been in Washington. That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen” with social justice movements.

The caucus grew out of an informal gathering of Blacks in Congress called the Democracy Select Committee in the late 1960s. It was started by 13 Black members of Congress who wanted a formal group to advocate collectively for their individual districts and for Black Americans. Among the founders was Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who would go on to be the first Black major-party candidate to run for U.S. president, in 1972.

Those politicians were mostly propelled into office after the civil rights movement, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. One of the caucus’ first acts was to boycott President Richard M. Nixon’s 1971 State of the Union address, after he refused to meet with the group. The caucus later presented Nixon with 61 recommendations to eradicate racism, provide better housing for Black families, and support Black participation in government.

More recently, the group has called for action in the wake of police killings and the disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 virus on people of color.

Lewis knew plenty about translating social justice experience into political ambitions. Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March of Washington, at which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

At the time of his death Lewis was in his 17th term representing Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, and a prominent liberal voice in the House of Representatives. In 2016, he led dozens of Democrats in an unprecedented sit-in inside the House chamber to protest a lack of action by his colleagues on gun control after the killing of 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

“We lost another stalwart of Black cities — one of the chocolate cities that represented Black life, Black culture,” Perry said. “John Lewis, wearing the suit and tie, the eloquence — reflecting his inner dignity — there has to be space for that in every movement.”

Toward the end of his life, Lewis expressed support for the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. Obama said in a statement on Saturday that the last time he saw Lewis was during a virtual town hall with “young activists” who protested over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May.

“Afterwards, I spoke to him privately, and he could not have been prouder of their efforts — of a new generation standing up for freedom and equality, a new generation intent on voting and protecting the right to vote, a new generation running for political office,” Obama said.


(Article written by Naomi Nix and Karen Toulon)