Last month, John Lewis, representative of Georgia’s 5th congressional district, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer but his ongoing legacy as a politician and activist continues to inspire several Georgia State student leaders and likely will for decades to come.
“I am terribly sad John Lewis is fighting pancreatic cancer, but I know he can continue making an impact regardless of his health,” Jazmin Mejia, university-wide president of the Student Government Association, said. “If anything, it’ll be even more meaningful that he continues to fight injustice when he himself is fighting something so ill.”
In addition to being a politician, John Lewis is widely known as a civil rights leader who protested in the civil rights movement alongside many other important figures, including Martin Luther King Jr. According to NPR, Lewis is considered one of the six most impactful leaders in the civil rights movement.
“Lewis was recognized as one of the ‘Big Six’ leaders of the Civil Rights movement — the other Big Six leaders were Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer and Roy Wilkins,” NPR states. “At just 23 years old, Lewis was one of the planners and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963.”
Lewis was a Freedom Rider who, in addition to speaking at the March on Washington, led “Bloody Sunday.” On March 7, 1965, Lewis, along with a large cohort of other civil rights leaders and activists, marched out of Selma and straight into the path of state and local enforcement. They were driven back into Selma after being attacked with clubs and tear gas.
The result? The 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“He serves as a symbol that we [the United States] have a long way to go to create a truly equal world for everyone,” Mejia said. “For us to still be walking side by side with civil rights leaders means the injustices are still being felt through grandparents, parents and youth today, and we must strive to continue fighting injustice.”
Lewis is also well known for his involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as he studied and practiced nonviolent sit-ins in the 1960s.
The SNCC was founded in North Carolina in the 1960s to advocate a nonviolent approach to civil rights through organizing freedom rides and marches throughout the civil rights era.
“John Lewis is an incredible and important actor within the civil rights movement in Atlanta and the South,” Mejia said. “He represents standing up for what you believe in and making sure young students cause ‘good trouble’ when injustice is evident.”
In addition to his civil rights legacy John Lewis also has a political history as well. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, John Lewis was the second African American representative from Georgia since the Reconstruction era and has been reelected 10 times.
“Lewis was present on the stage during the inauguration of Barack Obama, as the only living speaker from the rally at the March on Washington,” the AJC states. “Obama signed a commemorative photograph for Lewis with the words, ‘Because of you, John. Barack Obama.’”
The 5th congressional district comprises the heart of Atlanta, which encompasses schools that include Georgia State, Morehouse, Spelman and Clark Atlanta University.
John Lewis works for the students in this school, both directly and indirectly. When leaders like Lewis eventually step down from their roles, today’s youth, many of whom who may be student leaders now, will have to step up to the plate.
“In the future of Atlanta politics, I hope to see more representation, as well as improvement with specific policies like public transportation, teaching financial literacy in schools, better urban development [and] planning, among other things,” David Howell, vice president of the Black Student Alliance, said.
According to Georgia State, John Lewis was this year’s keynote speaker at Georgia State’s Convocation and the author of the 2019 First Year’s Book, but this is not the first time he has come to inspire the students of Georgia State.
“I feel that the students of Georgia State should look at John Lewis’s life as inspiration that you can do anything regardless of background, and you can be the change you want to see,” Howell said.
Back in 2014, John Lewis was also the keynote speaker for the Convocation of the upcoming class of 2018.
In a 2014 article by The Signal, it is stated that Lewis offered words of power and encouragement for students that would soon become a part of the city’s future.
“In his challenge, Lewis strongly suggested that the freshmen class use their education to reconstruct model communities and to reconcile individual differences with love and respect, not hate,” the article states.
Lewis also offered students advice about being disappointed in life.
“Lewis warned the first-year college students not to be lost in a sea of despair and not to be bitter from disappointments that surely would come,” the article states.
Lewis’ political, historical and cultural impact on students will extend far beyond his life, even for some who do not even know who he is.
“He has always been known as a fighter, and I’m sure he will continue that legacy with this fight,” Howell said. “I also acknowledge that this is the end of an era, and I look forward to the next leaders who will make a change in our city, state and country.”
As Lewis continues to fight, the voice of the student body calls for his legacy to be cemented in Georgia State’s history.
“A building or statue on the Atlanta campus commemorating the impact John Lewis is leaving would be a great way to continue his legacy,” Mejia said. “Also, a scholarship in his name for activists would be great.”