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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

Remembering John Lewis

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

While I knew who John Lewis was, I didn’t know much about him until I began reading the tributes that have been dominating the news since he passed away earlier this month.

I did know that Lewis was beaten by Alabama State Troopers in March of 1965 as he and others attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during one of the most famous civil rights marches in American history. But I did not know that he was the founder and early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that organized lunch-counter sit-ins and the famous March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his iconic “I have a Dream…” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

I did not know that Lewis also spoke on that August day in 1965, and that his death marked the passing of the last living speaker to do so. I did not know that prior to his speaking that day that the text of his speech had been pre-released which resulted in his enduring considerable criticism from black and white leaders who felt that his planned comments would be too incendiary.

One of 10 children raised by sharecropper parents in rural, Pike County, AL Lewis gained inspiration from the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley.

The title of the poem has also been carried over to the public middle school in Atlanta, GA – the John Lewis Invictus Academy. Opened in 2017 the school’s name pays tribute to the civil rights icon’s persistence, self-mastery and unconquerable spirit.


Out of the night that covers me Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds, and shall find, me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

by William Ernest Henley

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