January 22, 2021 Feature

John Lewis: Profile of a Civil Rights Legend

By Wesley Lewis, Andrew Pauwels, Brian Underwood, and Adrianna Rodriguez

Few individuals in the history of the American civil rights movement cast as long a shadow as Representative John Lewis (1940–2020). Born in rural Alabama as the son of sharecroppers, Lewis first gained fame (at least in his hometown newspaper) by preaching a sermon at his family church before even turning 16. John Lewis then embarked on an incredible life of “good trouble”: as a Freedom Rider, as a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), as an organizer of the March on Washington, and as a leader of the famed march in Selma, Alabama, that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” By the time he was 25, Lewis had done more than most accomplish in a lifetime, using speech and assembly as the powerful tools for change the Founders intended them to be. And, of course, he was only getting started; Lewis continued to serve as a powerful voice for racial justice and First Amendment freedoms in the halls of Congress for over 30 years.

Later in his life, Lewis frequently recognized the crucial role the press played in shaping his own life and the successes of the civil rights movement he helped spearhead. Lewis often repeated a variation of this message: “Without the brave journalists who covered our protests, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”1

When 2020 began, very few could have predicted how important Lewis’s words would once again prove. Following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020, widespread protests broke out across the country. According to data collected by the New York Times, somewhere between 15 million and 26 million people participated in Black Lives Matter demonstrations in more than 500 locations.2 Journalists covering these protests found themselves on the front lines like never before: In the course of covering these protests, members of the press were arrested, struck by rubber bullets, tear gassed, and otherwise targeted by law enforcement.3 People of all ages and races are taking to the streets to wage “good trouble,” and journalists are putting themselves in harm’s way to make sure that message gets to as many people as possible.

Shortly before his death, Lewis commented on the connective thread linking this movement to the movement he helped lead decades prior, writing in a statement, “My fellow Americans, this is a special moment in our history. Just as people of all faiths and no faiths, and all backgrounds, creeds, and colors banded together decades ago to fight for equality and justice in a peaceful, orderly, non-violent fashion, we must do so again.”4

Through the lens of these unique times, the Young Lawyers Committee of the ABA Forum on Communications Law remembers the life of John Lewis and looks to his legacy to provide an inspiration for media lawyers young and old to fight for the right to spark “good trouble” and for the journalists who shine a light on those who do.

Early Life

John Robert Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, near the town of Troy, Alabama. In his powerful graphic novel memoir March, Lewis recalled growing up on a farm and honing his skills as a young orator by preaching to the family chickens.5 School—and particularly the access to the outside world provided by books, newspapers, and magazines—became a central focus of Lewis’s young life, with him often running away from the family farm to avoid chores and attend class.6

At the age of 15, Lewis first heard the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in a sermon on the radio; Lewis recalls: “Dr. King’s message hit me like a bolt of lightning. He applied the principles of the church to what was happening now, today. It was called the social gospel—and I felt like he was preaching directly to me.”7 Lewis started to follow the civil rights movement closely, including the bus boycott in nearby Montgomery, and he began preaching in his family’s church.

After high school, Lewis moved to Nashville. While attending American Baptist Theological Seminary, Lewis embraced nonviolent, civil disobedience as a means for change. Lewis was arrested for the first time in February 1960, along with other students who organized a series of sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters at a Woolworth’s in Nashville.8 “We took our seats in a very orderly, peaceful fashion,” Lewis recounted. “[W]e stayed there at the lunch counter studying and preparing our homework, because we were denied service. The manager ordered that lunch counters be closed . . . and we’d just sit there and we continued to sit all day long. The first day nothing, in terms of violence or any disorder, nothing happened. This continued for a few more days, and it continued day in and day out.”9

After several tense days of nonviolent sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, Lewis and his fellow demonstrators were arrested for disorderly conduct—the first of many times that Lewis would be arrested for his activism. Later, Lewis looked back on his arrest, describing it as “like being involved in a holy crusade,” and considering it “a badge of honor.”10 Lewis and others refused to pay the fine set for them by the court, choosing instead to serve their sentences in the county workhouse.11 This act drew national media attention to the sit-ins, and the public pressure ultimately resulted in Nashville becoming the first major southern city to desegregate public facilities.12

John Lewis as a Civil Rights Activist

Following his arrest in 1960, Lewis continued his civil rights demonstrations, participating in sit-ins and protests that often left him bruised and bloodied, yet undeterred. That year, the Supreme Court struck down segregation of interstate bus facilities in Boynton v. Virginia;13 however, despite the Supreme Court’s clear mandate, segregation remained a deeply embedded reality in many parts of the rural south. Shortly after Boynton, civil rights activists began a campaign to “complete the integration of bus service and accommodations in the Deep South”14 by testing service providers’ compliance with Boynton and Morgan v. Virginia, an earlier Supreme Court decision that found segregation on interstate buses and trains was unconstitutional.15 To do so, Lewis and other members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) embarked on a series of “Freedom Rides” to challenge ongoing practices of racism and segregation.16

On May 4, 1961, Lewis and 12 other Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C., on two buses bound for New Orleans, Louisiana. Once the buses arrived in South Carolina, the Freedom Riders began encountering violent reactions to their refusal to observe segregationist practices; in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Lewis and his colleagues were beaten and arrested for using whites-only facilities, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Boynton.17 In Alabama, local officials gave the Ku Klux Klan permission to beat and harass the Freedom Riders: One bus was firebombed, and several passengers were beaten while fleeing the burning bus.18 At another stop, Lewis was attacked and left unconscious in a pool of his own blood outside a Greyhound Bus terminal in Montgomery, Alabama.19 Ultimately, Lewis and several of his fellow Freedom Riders were incarcerated at Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, for nearly a month for participating in the Freedom Rides.20

John Lewis remained steadfast. Throughout the early 1960s, he continued organizing and participating in demonstrations against racially segregated hotels, restaurants, and other facilities. In 1963, Lewis became the chairman of SNCC, which thrust him into the public eye. As SNCC chairman, one of Lewis’s primary responsibilities was to utilize the press to raise awareness of the committee’s nonviolent work, employing the news media to force the public to confront the suffering of nonviolent protesters at the hands of violent mobs and law enforcement.21 Additionally, Lewis and other civil rights leaders took part in the Freedom Vote, a mock election and demonstration intended to raise awareness of disenfranchisement among black voters in Mississippi.22

By 1963, Lewis had gained a high profile within the civil rights movement, and he became one of the principal organizers of the March on Washington in 1963. On that August day in 1963, Lewis delivered a stirring speech regarding the need for civil rights legislation. As Lewis remarked:

To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. 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. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.23

In March 1965, Lewis and hundreds of other civil rights advocates planned a now-infamous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to demand expanded voting rights in the state.24 As demonstrators began to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, a group of Alabama State Troopers arrived to confront them. Governor George Wallace had declared the demonstration unlawful and ordered law enforcement officers to force the crowd to disperse. When Lewis and his group continued marching, the state troopers attacked the demonstrators. Lewis was knocked to the ground and beaten repeatedly with billy clubs; he sustained a fractured skull as a result of the attack.25 That day became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and images of the violence ultimately helped spur the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

John Lewis as a Congressman

Lewis’s activism continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s, eventually culminating in his first run for Congress in 1977.26 Although the initial run was unsuccessful, Lewis later attained a position on the Atlanta City Council in 1981.27 In 1986, Lewis ran again for Congress, this time successfully.28

Upon reaching Washington, Lewis quickly established himself as an independent advocate for his district, not beholden to either party. As a result, Lewis’s resolute advocacy for his ideals often placed him on the losing side of major proposals. For example, during the first Bush administration, Lewis voted against war in Iraq.29 In 1996, Rep. Lewis joined just 100 other members of the House of Representatives to vote against President Clinton’s welfare reform measures.30 And when the question of war in Iraq arose a second time after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Lewis again voted against the war, citing concerns about the long-term and unknown consequences of the conflict.31 But even when voting in the majority, Lewis still faced opposition, enduring racial slurs for his support of the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration.32 When speaking to reporters afterward, Lewis was unmoved from his support of the legislation, saying, “[I]t’s okay. I’ve faced this before.”33

Lewis’s advocacy continued into the Trump administration, occasionally leading to very public disputes with the president. The earliest of such disputes began shortly after the 2016 election and its polarizing results. Neither major candidate received a majority of the popular vote, and President Trump won the electoral college despite Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comfortable popular vote plurality.34 The specter of foreign influence loomed large over the election results and would continue to linger through the investigation of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, to say nothing of the subsequent impeachment proceedings premised on similar concerns.35

In the wake of those results, Lewis announced he would not attend President Trump’s inauguration ceremony, citing his concerns that Russian influence swayed the election’s outcome and stating that he did not view Trump as a “legitimate president.”36 This was the second time Lewis declined to attend a presidential inauguration: He similarly skipped the 2001 inauguration of President George W. Bush due to the controversies surrounding the election results in Florida and the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision.37 President Trump responded via Twitter, saying that the congressman and former civil rights leader was “all talk, talk, talk” with “no actions or results.”38 The president further criticized Lewis’s district—which comprises a substantial part of Atlanta and the surrounding metropolitan area—as being “in horrible shape and falling apart” and “crime infested,” contending that Lewis was “falsely complaining” about the election results.39 Unsurprisingly, a few angry tweets did not dissuade Lewis, and several other members of Congress joined Lewis in protest.40

Meanwhile, Lewis’s authorial pursuits, which only expanded later in his life, complemented the continued activity in his political career. While Lewis previously coauthored Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement in 1999,41 the 2010s saw a flurry of publishing activity by the seasoned congressman. From 2012 through the end of his life, Lewis coauthored or authored several new books, including the previously mentioned trilogy of autobiographical graphic novels titled March,42 which recount Lewis’s experiences in the civil rights movement. Lewis hoped the series would impact young people in a manner similar to another graphic work: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story (1958), which influenced Lewis in his youth in its advocacy for peaceful protest and nonviolent resistance.43 Run, the sequel to March, published its first installment in 2019, picking up shortly after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.44

Unfortunately, Lewis would not live to see the completed publication of the Run series. In December 2019, Lewis announced that he had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.45 Despite his diagnosis, Lewis’s work continued. Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May, among other high-profile examples of police misconduct, protests and civil unrest spread across the country to call for police reform.46 In response, the House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which Lewis co-sponsored with his colleagues.47 Among many other things, the bill would curtail the qualified immunity defense in Section 1983 civil actions, which allows state actors to avoid liability for violating statutory or constitutional rights that are not clearly established at the time of the purported violation.48 Just a few weeks after the bill’s passage in the House and while it remained stalled in the Senate, John Lewis passed away on July 17, 2020, at the age of 80.49

John Lewis as a Model for Young Lawyers

Lewis left behind a country that owes a great deal to him and those like him for pulling it forward, step by step, from the enduring legacy of slavery and toward a future free from the prejudices that stubbornly persist and divide neighbor from neighbor. The change he was able to achieve, and the change still yet to be achieved, would not be possible without the protections of the First Amendment. Even when the full force of state violence was unleashed on peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama, the First Amendment set the baseline for the passive resistance—the “good trouble”—that facilitated all the progress of the civil rights movement. Decades later, those protections allowed Lewis to publicly challenge even the legitimacy of the president of the United States.

The life of John Lewis demonstrates the importance of utilizing, and protecting, the freedoms afforded by the First Amendment. Lawyers, through the unique privileges of their profession and their special access to the judicial system, play an important role in advocating for, maintaining, and expanding those (and other) freedoms. Sometimes that role is overlooked in the day-to-day life of young lawyers, whether they be associates in a large firm, solo practitioners, employed in government positions, or advocates in a nonprofit, public interest group. Each path has its benefits and drawbacks, but advocacy for the causes in which young lawyers believe and for the rights of others is possible regardless of which path they choose. Simply put, young lawyers do not need to work on the next landmark Supreme Court case to make an impact. As Lewis’s life shows, meaningful advocacy can take a variety of forms: Organizing, writing, and voting are all options for encouraging meaningful change. Lawyers have the additional opportunity to represent those who organize, write, and vote through pro bono advocacy.

Lewis’s experience also highlights the importance of individuals assisting and receiving assistance from others in connection with life’s various pursuits, whether collective or individual. When Lewis participated in the Freedom Rides or when he marched on Selma and Washington, he did not do so alone. Instead, he was surrounded by likeminded individuals, all marching together for a common cause. Of course, the need for such support extends well beyond the realm of political action and is no less important, or perhaps even more so, in day-to-day life. As young lawyers quickly find out, the legal profession has a variety of strains and stresses. Maintaining a support group of family, friends, and colleagues helps to overcome such challenges, ultimately leading to a happier, more fulfilling career and allowing for more opportunities to help others in turn.

Last, however, Lewis shows young lawyers that it is never too early or too late to meaningfully participate in the causes that matter to them. Public advocacy can happen at any age. And no matter what progress is made, the possibility for improvement always remains. After all, even in the final days of his life, and despite all the advances made throughout his lifetime, Lewis still found such an opportunity for improvement, co-sponsoring a bill that would roll back the qualified immunity defense (among many other proposed reforms) such that state actors and private citizens may be placed on the same footing with respect to the phrase “Ignorance of the law excuses no one.” Similar opportunities for improvement will always exist, if looked for. Young lawyers should not shy away from seeking and pursuing them, however grand or small they may seem. And hopefully, toward the end of their careers, they will keep looking for such opportunities—if not to pass the next sweeping reform bill in Congress, at least to encourage and mentor, as Lewis has done, the next generation to continue the work that will eventually be left to them.

Endnotes

1. See, e.g., John Lewis (May 3, 2014), https://twitter.com/repjohnlewis/status/594985105208287232?lang=en (tweeting in honor of World Press Freedom Day 2015).

2. Larry Buchanan, Quoctrung Bui & Jugal K. Patel, Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History, N.Y. Times (July 2, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html.

3. See Courtney Douglas, Amid Black Lives Matter Protests, a Crushing Moment for Journalists Facing Record Attacks, Arrests at the Hands of Law Enforcement, Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press (Sept. 4, 2020), https://www.rcfp.org/black-lives-matter-press-freedom.

4. Chandelis Duster, Civil Rights Icon John Lewis Calls Black Lives Matter Mural “a Powerful Work of Art” During Visit from DC Mayor, CNN.com (June 7, 2020), https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/07/politics/john-lewis-visits-black-lives-matter-mural/index.html.

5. See John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell, March: Book One (2013) [hereinafter March: Book One].

6. Id.

7. Id. at 56.

8. Katharine Q. Seelye, John Lewis, Towering Figure of Civil Rights Era, Dies at 80, N.Y. Times (updated Aug. 4, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/john-lewis-dead.html.

9. See Jon Meacham, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope 67–68 (2020).

10. Id. at 70.

11. March: Book One, supra note 5, at 103–09.

12. Seelye, supra note 8.

13. 364 U.S. 454 (1960).

14. Meacham, supra note 9, at 85.

15. 328 U.S. 373 (1946).

16. See Derrick Bryson Taylor, Who Were the Freedom Riders?, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/18/us/politics/freedom-riders-john-lewis-work.html.

17. Id.

18. Id.

19. Id.

20. Meacham, supra note 9, at 111.

21. Id. at 143; see also The Life and Legacy of John Lewis, N.Y. Times (July 20, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/20/podcasts/the-daily/john-lewis.html.

22. Meacham, supra note 9, at 157.

23. Rep John Lewis’ Speech at March on Washington, YouTube.com (Feb. 7, 2016), https://youtu.be/tFs1eTsokJg.

24. Matthew S. Schwartz, In Selma, a “Final Crossing” for John Lewis Across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, NPR.org (July 26, 2020, 10:43 AM), https://www.npr.org/2020/07/26/895149942/in-selma-a-final-crossing-for-john-lewis-across-the-edmund-pettus-bridge.

25. Id.

26. Seelye, supra note 8.

27. Id.

28. Id.

29. Marty Steinberg, Rep. John Lewis, Civil Rights Freedom Fighter Who Rose to Congress, Dies at 80, CNBC (July 17, 2020), https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/17/rep-john-lewis-civil-rights-freedom-fighter-who-rose-to-congress-dies-at-80.html.

30. Robert Pear, Clinton to Sign Welfare Bill That Ends U.S. Aid Guarantee and Gives States Broad Power, N.Y. Times (Aug. 1, 1966), https://www.nytimes.com/1996/08/01/us/clinton-sign-welfare-bill-that-ends-us-aid-guarantee-gives-states-broad-power.html.

31. Charles Davis, Rep. John Lewis, Civil Rights Icon, Was a Powerful Voice Against War with Iraq, Bus. Insider (July 18, 2020), https://www.businessinsider.com/john-lewis-was-a-lonely-voice-against-war-with-iraq-2020-7.

32. Rep.: Protesters Yelled Racial Slurs, CBS News (Mar. 20, 2010), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/rep-protesters-yelled-racial-slurs.

33. Seelye, supra note 8.

34. Alana Abramson, Hillary Clinton Officially Wins Popular Vote by Nearly 2.9 Million, ABC News (Dec. 22, 2016), https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/hillary-clinton-officially-wins-popular-vote-29-million/story?id=44354341.

35. See Peter Baker, Impeachment Battle to Turn for First Time on a President’s Ties to a Foreign Country, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/28/us/politics/impeachment-foreign-influence.html.

36. Christine Wang, Trump’s Inauguration Won’t Be First One Rep. John Lewis Will Miss, CNBC (Jan. 17, 2017), https://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/17/trumps-inauguration-wont-be-first-one-rep-john-lewis-will-miss.html.

37. Id.

38. Id.

39. Id.

40. See id. (“Some had already announced they would not be attending Trump’s inauguration, but many more came forward following Trump’s tweets, which came days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”).

41. John Lewis & Michael D’Orso, Walking with the Wind (1999).

42. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell, March: Book 3 (2016); John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell, March: Book 2 (2015); March: Book One, supra note 5.

43. Michael Cavna, How Rep. Lewis’s “March” Trilogy Found Inspiration in a 60-Year-Old MLK Comic Book, Wash. Post (Jan. 15, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2018/01/15/how-rep-john-lewiss-march-trilogy-found-inspiration-in-a-60-year-old-mlk-comic-book.

44. Calvin Reid, Abrams to Publish Sequel to John Lewis’ March Trilogy, Publishers Wkly. (Feb. 16, 2018), https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/comics/article/76082-abrams-to-publish-sequel-to-john-lewis-march-trilogy.html.

45. Paul LeBlanc & Elizabeth Cohen, Civil Rights Icon Rep. John Lewis Announces He Has Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer, CNN (Dec. 30, 2019), https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/29/politics/john-lewis-pancreatic-cancer/index.html.

46. Derrick Bryson Taylor, George Floyd Protests: A Timeline, N.Y. Times (July 10, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/article/george-floyd-protests-timeline.html.

47. George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, H.R. 7120, 116th Cong. (2020) (as passed by the House of Representatives).

48. Id. § 102.

49. Suzanne Malveaux, Lauren Fox, Faith Karimi & Brandon Griggs, Civil Rights Legend Rep. John Lewis Dead at 80, CNN (July 18, 2020), https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/17/politics/john-lewis-dead-at-80/index.html.

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By Wesley Lewis, Andrew Pauwels, Brian Underwood, and Adrianna Rodriguez

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Wesley Lewis is an associate in the Austin, Texas, office of Haynes and Boone, LLP, where he focuses his practice on First Amendment, intellectual property, and media and entertainment litigation and appeals. He also regularly counsels clients regarding access and newsgathering, defamation, privacy, and other media and intellectual property issues.

Andrew Pauwels is a partner at Honigman LLP in Detroit, Michigan. He focuses on media law litigation, representing local and national print and broadcast media companies in defamation, media access, and other litigation. He also counsels media clients regarding subpoena and search warrant disputes. In addition to media law, Andrew focuses on complex commercial litigation and intellectual property litigation matters. He has experience litigating disputes in various state and federal courts, in Michigan, and throughout the country.

Brian Underwood is a litigator at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP who focuses his practice on assisting clients with media, First Amendment, TCPA and Internet content-related disputes, and navigating those disputes to a successful resolution. Brian also has experience in litigating a variety of business tort and contract disputes, including trade secret protection, tortious interference with business relations, and unfair competition.

Adrianna Rodriguez is vice president and assistant general counsel-news at Univision Communications Inc. Prior to joining Univision, Adrianna was a member of Ballard Spahr’s Media and Entertainment Law Group, where she counseled journalists and media companies across the country on a variety of First Amendment issues, including newsgathering, access, reporter’s privilege, and copyright.