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October 01, 2003

Human Rights Hero: John Lewis

by Thurbert E. Baker

Representative John Lewis of Georgia has been described as one of the most courageous people ever produced by the civil rights movement. Enduring physical battles while fighting for civil rights and political battles while representing his constituents from Georgia's Fifth Congressional District in the U.S. House, Lewis leads a life characterized by leadership and an unquenchable desire to create the "Beloved Community," where the goals of personal dignity, human rights, and environmental quality are realities for all people.

Born into a sharecropping family and later serving in elected office, Lewis understands environmental justice issues on both personal and political levels. As he noted in the foreword to the book Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color, "I [grew up] in Alabama seeing the signs that said 'White,' and 'Colored.' The signs are gone, but the residuals of Jim Crow housing and unfair industrial and land use polices are still with us." This understanding led Lewis to introduce the U.S. Congress's first environmental justice bill shortly after the inaugural People of Color Environmental Summit in 1992. For almost a decade, he reintroduced the bill, relentlessly advocating for a clean and healthy environment for all people and paving the way for future successes. Just as African Americans and others mobilized to protest segregation and discrimination, Lewis has said, "they now mobilized to protest unjust public policies, discriminatory facility-siting practices, unequal protection, and other forms of environmental racism." He emphasizes that the goal is not to spread the risk and burden our neighbors, but rather "to leave our physical environment-the communities where we live, work and play-a little cleaner, a little greener for unborn generations."

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2003, Vol. 30, No. 4, p.25.

Thurbert E. Baker

Thurbert E. Baker is Attorney General of Georgia.