John Lewis passed away on Friday, July 17, 2020, of pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old. Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940 to parents who were sharecroppers. But, when he passed away, he had come a long way and died as a U.S. representative of the 5th congressional district of Georgia, having served for seventeen terms since 1986. In 2011, he was conferred the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama who called Lewis the “conscience of the United States Congress”.
Lewis is best known as a civil rights leader who brought attention to the unequal status of blacks in American society. His interest in the civil rights movement began at the age of fifteen when he first heard Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio. He followed King’s Montgomery bus boycotts closely. He would meet Rosa Parks at age seventeen, and King when he was eighteen. His actual involvement in the civil rights movement came with his association with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the principal group that spearheaded student involvement to challenge segregation and the political exclusion of African-Americans. The SNCC was also seminal in the registration and mobilization of black voters. Representing the SNCC, Lewis was one of six leaders who spoke at the now famous 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech before a crowd of 250,000 people.
John Lewis often spoke of having been arrested at least forty times. The incident for which he will forever be remembered is now known as Bloody Sunday, of Mar. 7, 1965. John Lewis was leading a group of civil rights activists who were protesting the right of blacks to vote. On their march to the state capital of Alabama in Montgomery, they were intercepted by Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma who demanded that the activists turn back. The police intimidated the protestors with horses, billy clubs, and tear gas. In thorough adherence to Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of non-violent protest, John Lewis and others of his group peacefully stood their ground. For this, they were tear-gassed and brutally beaten with night sticks. Many protestors were critically injured, as was John Lewis who was struck over the head and suffered a fractured skull.
The bravery of Lewis and others and the atrocity committed by the Alabama State Troopers on Bloody Sunday immediately brought national attention to the issue of unequal voting rights for whites and blacks. This incident served to heighten the awareness of racial inequality in the U.S., and accelerated calls for the enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. The bill was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965. Needless to mention, the efforts of Lewis and other protestors was monumental in that it had not only opened the gates to voting rights for black people but for American citizens of all ethnicities.
John Lewis’ protest was not for himself but conducted with the intention of righting the injustice brought on all minorities. The purity of his service alone lends credence to his actions. In this way, Lewis’ motivation is clearly in step with the Buddha’s philosophy,
whose principal cornerstone is to serve others first. Why would anyone seek to serve others at the expense of being beaten physically and shamed socially? Lewis sought to benefit and protect others in their health, well-being, livelihood, safety, and happiness, for the simple reason that he respected them. That he refused to fight back on that bridge, and maintain a non-violent posture, is again a show of respect, even towards the police who beat him mercilessly.
Lewis’ great perseverance highlights the controversy surrounding the wearing of masks during this coronavirus pandemic. Our medical experts have explained time and again that masks are a courtesy towards others, and not necessarily to protect its wearer, although there may be some efficacy in this. There should be no controversy in this. Our use of masks, then, help us to prevent the spread of the virus to others, supposing that we ourselves are infected. Wearing a mask has nothing to do with giving up one’s freedom. Nor should wearing a mask be associated with an admission of weakness. People should not be made to feel guilt or embarrassment that they choose to protect others. Wearing a mask is a show of respect towards others, to ascertain that those whom we come into contact will be kept from harm. In essence, wearing a mask is a due courtesy, in the way that one acknowledges the existence and significance of another. The moment one tenders the argument that masks are an infringement on our freedom, s/he is viewing the issue egocentrically. It aggrandizes the importance of one’s own existence over another. And, to the extent that wearing masks have been shown to be effective in mitigating this virus, it is undoubtedly saving lives, and thus should not be conflated with notions of cowardice. By wearing masks and thereby controlling the virus, we are also expanding the possibility of choices, thus allowing one more freedom.
John Lewis’ entire life was devoted to seeking equality for all. Each of us benefit every day from the pain and blood that was shed by Lewis and others on that fateful day. Equality, quite simply, is about having respect for others. There really is nothing else to it. Wearing a mask is simply another way of showing one’s respect for another, to assure others that their life is equally as important as one’s own. (Eisei Ikenaga)