ATLANTA — As the nation mourns the loss of Rep. John R. Lewis — one of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement — the younger generations he helped groom and inspire are pledging to carry out his legacy.
Civil rights leaders, young and old, praised Lewis on Saturday for his unwavering fight for social justice, but acknowledged his work — and theirs — is far from finished.
“This death for me puts so much pressure on us,” said Philomena Wankenge, 22, a founder of Freedom Fighters DC in Washington, D.C. “He (Lewis) did as much as he could do. He set the battleground, now it’s time for us to continue the war.”
Wankenge and other young activists, some who have never met Lewis, say his life’s work has inspired them to follow in his foot steps. Seasoned civil rights veterans who have worked alongside Lewis feel it’s their responsibility to continue his fight for voting rights — particularly with upcoming elections.
Lewis’ death comes as people have taken to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in May in the custody of a white Minneapolis police officer.
Protests have taken place in more than 1,700 communities across the country calling attention to police brutality against Blacks and systemic racism. Activists are also fighting for quality health care and easier access to the polls.
The protests have drawn parallels to the civil rights movement of the 1960s that Lewis helped organize.
A legacy of ‘fighting’
“I’m heartbroken,” said Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, which among other things helps register people to vote.
Campbell said veterans of the civil rights movement, many of whom are in their 80’s and 90’s, set the bar high for today’s activists. Many like Lewis were still active until his health failed. Lewis announced he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer last December.
“When you think you’re tired you look at some of them and you go, ‘Okay, I’m not tired,” Campbell said. “It’s something about those that came out of that era. It keeps you going.’’
“You never stop fighting. And none of them did – until they couldn’t,” she said.
Lewis’ death serves as the end of an era — he was the last surviving member of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders who organized and spoke at the March on Washington for civil and economic rights of Black people. The group included Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young.
Fighting for voting rights
Lewis spent most of his life advocating for equality, particularly voting rights for Black people, including as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and ayoung organizer for the March on Washington in 1963. He later served as an Atlanta city councilman and a Democratic member of Congress representing Georgia. He was instrumental in helping get the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed.
Lewis continued to be a champion for voting rights while serving in Congress. He also spoke out against voter suppression and voter purges in Georgia.
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LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said Lewis paved the way for her work on voting rights.
Brown first met Lewis during a training program for young activists at the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma, Alabama in 1995. Lewis was a guest speaker and Brown was helping train activists.
Lewis, she said, had a humble spirit and often talked about the power of love and forgiveness.
“He believed that if there were enough people who did good work… that we could really transform the world,” Brown said.
Brown, who has worked across the South, including in Georgia, said she is lobbying for the restoration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which prohibits racial discrimination in voting. Brown said she wants the law to mandate more federal oversight over elections and same-day voter registration.
“I’m hoping in this moment that in the celebration of his life that we don’t minimize the fact that the work is still unfinished,” she said. “Until every single citizen has free and fair access to the ballot, democracy has not been achieved.”
Brown’s group led get-out-the-vote efforts in 2017 helping Democrat Doug Jones become the first Democrat in 25 years to win a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama. He was favored by 98 percent of black women voters.
Lewis, who campaigned for Jones, told USA TODAY he cried the night Jones won.
“It says something about what could happen,” Lewis said. “And his election should give other people hope.”
John Lewis’ ‘disciples’
Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell, the first black congresswoman from Alabama, has introduced voting rights measures that Lewis has touted, including her 2019 Voting Rights Advancement Act. When the House passed it last December, Lewis banged the gavel.
Sewell calls herself a “disciple” of Lewis and said he was a mentor. The two were often at press conferences and other events calling for more voting rights protections. Lewis had worked in Alabama during the civil rights movement trying to register Blacks to vote.
Sewell said she learned much about determination and the drive to continue fighting from Lewis.
“There’s a lot of work to be done. But the good news is John gave us a roadmap,’’ she said. “He may not get there with us, but we are better because of his vision, because of his leadership and because he led by example.”
Younger civil rights activists say they were also inspired by Lewis.
Wankenge said his speeches resonated with her because he spoke with authority and demanded the room.
“His voice was his power,” she said. “I see myself in him.”
Campbell called the current civil rights movement multi-generational and noted similar fights in the past for voting rights and civil rights.
“The movement never stops. You do your part in it,’’ she said. “We support the generation coming behind. That’s how they did it.”
Derrick Johnson, president of the national NAACP, said Lewis laid the groundwork for him and other civil rights activists and they have more work to do.
“As a result of his integrity and his moral compass, he dedicated his life and set an example for all of us to follow,’’ said Johnson.
Johnson once led the state chapter of the NAACP in Mississippi where Lewis and others worked to register Blacks to vote in the 1960s.
Johnson said the NAACP is continuing the push for voting rights and has ramped up its national get-out-the-vote efforts for the November elections.
“The steps he made set an example for many generations that will come behind,” Johnson said of Lewis.
Johnson and other civil rights leaders said they’re excited about the younger generation stepping up.
Damayanti Wallace, a member of the Chicago-based GoodKids MadCity, an anti-gun violence group for youth, said through Lewis’ life she learned that it’s possible to be both an activist and a politician. Wallace, 19, said the next step for her generation is to continue leading marches, petitions and workshops.
“The next step is to keep fighting,” Wallace said. “That’s our best bet and the only way to get what we want. The end goal is defunding police and dismantling the system.”
Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, said Lewis had the “clearest vision of justice there can be.”
“What happens from here is that we keep fighting,” Robinson said. “We keep strategizing, we keep working to win justice and freedom.”
Contributing: Grace Hauck