The man known as the “Conscience of the Congress” had a profound impact, both professionally and personally on three House members representing Queens.
Civil rights titan Congressman John Lewis, who represented Georgia’s Fifth District in Congress for 34 uninterrupted years, succumbed to Stage 4 pancreatic cancer on July 17 at the age of 80. Queens Rep. Gregory Meeks served with Lewis for 22 of those years and told QNS he cherishes the time he spent with the “apostle of nonviolence,” who had been the last living member of the Big Six civil rights activists who organized and marched with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
“He was a remarkable man and his funeral in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church was a celebration of the man and his life’s work,” Meeks said following the July 30 funeral and burial. “I walked in full of sorrow and I walked out thanking God for knowing this man. The funeral was a wonderful tribute to a great, great man. The ‘Boy from Troy’ may have been small in stature but he was a giant. He was always quiet and humble but if he was speaking from the House floor he roared like a lion.”
Lewis was best known for leading the 1965 “Bloody Sunday: March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge where he had his skull fractured after he was beaten by Alabama state troopers. At age 23 he was the youngest speaker at the Lincoln Memorial during King’s “March on Washington.”
“It speaks to his legacy that three former presidents — Obama, Bush and Clinton — spoke at his funeral, and a fourth, Jimmy Carter sent along a statement as he is in poor health,” Meeks said. “Here was a man who was attacked with billy clubs, had bones broken and was spit on so many times yet he never held bitterness towards his attackers over the years. He just tried to show love and for that, he changed America.”
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who represents parts of Queens, served with Lewis since 1992 and called him an incredible civil rights leader and an even better man.
“I’m grateful to have stirred up some good trouble together on the House floor during our sit-in against gun violence, a movement which spread to cities across the country. It was just one in a million ways he inspired the next generation of activists to never stop fighting for justice and equality,” Maloney said. “It was an honor to join him during many of his yearly trips to Selma, Alabama, to retrace his and Martin Luther King Jr.’s steps across the Edmund Pettus Bridge as we not only honored the movement that they started but also rededicated ourselves to the mission of racial justice. I will cherish the memory of joining him and President Obama there to mark the 50th anniversary of the march.”
Queens Rep. Grace Meng called Lewis a giant and an icon of the civil rights movement.
“He was a remarkable and courageous human being who fought and bled for equality and justice,” Meng said. “He never stopped being an activist. One of my memories I have of John was sitting with him on the floor of the House when he led that sit-in protest to push for tougher gun safety laws. It was serious. It was peaceful. It was positive. It was impactful.”
Meng cherishes a photo of Lewis and her two sons Brandon and Tyler to remind herself, them, and future generations of how hard people fought for civil rights.
“It is a reminder of the past and future good trouble. John had such an impact on my life and the lives of millions of people throughout our nation,” Meng said. “He was a hero to so many of us. He believed in and fought for a better America and we owe him an immense debt of gratitude for all that he did for our country. We must be fearless like him. John’s legacy and the inspiration and change he helped to create will never be forgotten, and I will always cherish the friendship that we had. I ask all Americans to keep him and his loved ones in our thoughts and prayers.”