Congressman John Lewis dedicated his life to the fight for justice and civil rights — and today we also remember him as a stalwart champion of America's national parks.
It’s humbling to try to add to the outpouring of remembrances of Congressman John Lewis, who passed away last Friday after battling pancreatic cancer — fighting, only fittingly, to the very end of his life.
What does one say about such a towering figure, when words pale in comparison to his actions?
To retrace his footsteps is to recount so much of America’s modern civil rights history, where Lewis, at every step, put his body on the line in the service of justice: at Nashville lunch counters as an organizer of peaceful sit-ins, at Southern bus stations as one of the thirteen original Freedom Riders, at the March on Washington as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And, most memorably, at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Lewis led 600 peaceful marchers demanding voting rights and suffered a fractured skull at the hands of Alabama state troopers in riot gear — only to see the Voting Rights Act signed into law just months later.
It is that steadfastness and resolve that lie at the heart of everything John Lewis stood for. In a tweet from June 2018, he shared these words, which are even more inspiring in the wake of his passing:
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. —Rep. John Lewis
The civil rights legacy forged by a young John Lewis and his peers is enshrined in two national park sites in Alabama: Freedom Riders National Monument and Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Later in life, Lewis was a dedicated champion of the national park ideal. At the National Parks Conservation Association, we have had the honor of working closely with Congressman John Lewis over the course of his 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, presenting him the Friends of the National Parks Award, which recognizes members of Congress for supporting the National Park System through legislative votes.
Congressman Lewis also was the recipient of two of NPCA’s most prestigious awards: the NPCA Honor Award (1996), which recognizes outstanding efforts by a citizen activist, politician or community on behalf of the National Park System, and the William Penn Mott Park Leadership Award (2001), which recognizes the efforts of a member of Congress or other public official who stands as a strong advocate of the parks.
That advocacy continues to this day. As one of the best-known alumni of the Rosenwald Schools — the thousands of rural Southern schools built for African American children by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and educator Booker T. Washington between 1912 and 1932 — Congressman Lewis helped to advance legislation currently pending before Congress that would create the first national park site honoring a Jewish American.
Perhaps the most fitting way that we, as park advocates, can honor Congressman Lewis’ legacy is never to stop causing such good and necessary trouble as this.
About the author
Theresa Pierno President and CEO
Theresa Pierno is President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. She joined NPCA in 2004 after a distinguished career in public service and natural resource protection, and has helped to solidify the organization's role as the voice of America's national parks.