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President Donald Trump downplayed the important accomplishments of Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon who died last month, in a wide-ranging interview with Axios. Trump refused to acknowledge the achievements by the late lawmaker, instead of focusing on the fact that Lewis refused to attend his inauguration in 2017.
“I don’t know John Lewis,” Trump told “Axios on HBO.” “He chose not to come to my inauguration.”
When asked if he thought Lewis was impressive, the president said he couldn’t “say one way or the other.”
“I find a lot of people impressive. I find many people not impressive,” Trump said. “He didn’t come—he didn’t come to my inauguration. He didn’t come to my State of the Union speeches, and that’s OK. That’s his right.”
Axios reporter Jonathan Swain pressed the president on whether he found Lewis’ life story and his accomplishments impressive. Trump responded, “He was a person that devoted a lot of energy and a lot of heart to civil rights, but there were many others also.”
Trump’s remarks on Lewis’ accomplishments and legacy should not come as a surprise. It is not the first time that the president has disparaged a deceased lawmaker. He did against the late Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war and Republican presidential nominee.
For those who have forgotten Lewis’ long list of amazing accomplishments—from volunteering as one of the original Freedom Riders to his long career as a congressman—The North Star has chosen four key moments in Lewis’ career. These achievements represent but a small sliver of the incredible work Lewis did from a very young age until his dying breath.
March on Washington
In 1963, a 23-year-old Lewis delivered one of the most important speeches of his young career as a civil rights activist. Lewis was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was set to give the speech to hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Washington, D.C. on his organization’s behalf.
“I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and malet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete,” Lewis told the crowd. “For in the Delta in Mississippi, in southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and all over this nation, the Black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom.”
Lewis’ speech almost didn’t happen, according to his 1998 book Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. His original speech caused a bit of an uproar, the archbishop of Washington, Patrick O’Boyle, refused to deliver the opening invocation at the March on Washington if Lewis gave his speech.
O’Boyle wasn’t the only one who wasn’t pleased with Lewis’ speech. Neither was Bobby Kennedy and a union leader, The Washington Post reported. Edits were demanded and after some begging from fellow organizer A. Philip Randolph, Lewis agreed.
His speech, often overshadowed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered that day, moved the masses.
“Certainly King’s speech was the most eloquent that day,” New Yorker editor David Remnick would write about the speech years later. “But the most ferocious was John Lewis’s.”
Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act of 1965
March 7, 1965 will go down as one of the most important dates in American history. Lewis, along with other major civil rights leaders, organized a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama. Nearly 600 people participated in the 54-mile march from Selma to the state Capital, but they didn’t get very far.
As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the demonstrators were met by violent white state troopers. The troopers attacked the demonstrators with tear gas and nightsticks. Lewis was brutally beaten and his skull was fractured. A total of 17 marchers were hospitalized and another 50 were treated for their injuries, Politico reported.
Eight days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, calling for the Voting Rights Act to be passed. “There is no issue of states’ rights or national rights,” the president said. “There is only the struggle for human rights. We have already waited 100 years and more, and the time for waiting is gone.”
Congress ultimately passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a monumental law that banned the use of literacy tests, allowed for federal oversight of voter registration and authorized the Attorney General to investigate the use of poll taxes in state and local elections.
On the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Lewis joined then-President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge again. There are now efforts to rename the bridge in honor of Lewis.
Elected to Congress
In 1986, more than 20 years after beginning his journey as a civil rights activist, Lewis decided to run for office. He won, thus becoming only the second African American elected to Congress from Georgia. Lewis remained in office until his death on July 17.
During his time in office, he continued to be outspoken and to use his platform to call out injustices and wrong. In 2009, he was arrested outside of the Embassy of Sudan while protesting the obstruction of aid to refugees in Darfur, CNN reported. Two years later, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama.
Lewis also used his time in office to speak out against two elections he deemed to be illegitimate. In 2001, he refused to participate in the inauguration of President George W. Bush. He later boycotted the inauguration of President Trump in 2017, citing evidence of Russian meddling.
Leads House Sit-in For Gun Control
In June 2016, Lewis once again led the charge in a protest, this time on the floor of the House of Representatives. The Georgia Democrat led 170 lawmakers in a sit-in on the House floor to protest inaction on gun control. The sit-in came days after the Senate refused to act on several gun control measures in light of the mass shooting at a nightclub in Florida.
“We will not be happy, we will not be satisfied, we will not be pleased until we do something in a major way,” Lewis said, according to CNN. “We’ve lost too many of our children, of our babies, too many of our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters. And we will continue to fight.”
The sit-in on the House floor was hardly a first for Lewis, who led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters around Nashville as a college student. He was also an original Freedom Rider, participating at sit-ins at segregated bus terminals.
For 25 hours, Lewis and fellow Democrats sat on the House floor. After ending the protest, they promised to continue fighting for gun control.
About the Author
Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.