Remembering and Honoring John Lewis: Without Him, Programs Like Ours Would Not Be Here

Rest in Power Congressman John Lewis: 1940-2020

John Lewis was born to sharecropper parents in 1940 in Troy, Alabama. He remembered being disappointed as a teen when he realized the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education ruling had no impact on his own school.  By the time he was 17, he was already organizing and getting arrested for sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. And at 21, he was organizing and getting arrested for Freedom Rides to enforce the 1946 Supreme Court ban on segregation on interstate buses. He became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963 and was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington the following year, an event that hastened the Civil Rights Act being signed into law.

For many, he is most-famously known for his participation in “Bloody Sunday,” the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL where he, along with hundreds of activists, were brutally beaten by state troopers, leaving Lewis with a fractured skull. The events of “Bloody Sunday” were broadcast widely on national news, hastening the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  Lewis’ years of public service continued, with work in philanthropy at the Field Foundation, leading the Voters Education Project, and working to promote equality through the Southern Regional Project. He won his first elected seat in 1981, joining the Atlanta City Council. In 1986, he was elected to the House of Representatives where he worked tirelessly for more than 30 years advocating for healthcare reform, fighting poverty, and improving education, as well as gaining multiple renewals of the Voting Rights Act.

When John Lewis passed away this week, we are all left to reflect on his long legacy of advocating for justice and freedom.

Avenues for Justice (AFJ) began in 1979 as one of the first Alternative to Incarceration programs in the country to provide services for youth, and the first and only to be continuously led and co-founded by a Latinx Executive Director. Our operations started within a small office inside the Criminal Courthouse and later expanded to community centers in the Lower East Side and Harlem. These centers existed for one purpose - to provide a safe space for youth. For many years, the communities we serve have been systemically denied resources, functional school systems, adequate healthcare facilities, job opportunities, safe playgrounds and much more. We’ve fought every day to help African American and Latinx youth overcome the forces against them; to keep them from going to jail for nonviolent crimes, because we have proven for over 40 years, that they can turn their lives around when given equal access to school, jobs, and services instead of jail cells.

We wouldn’t be able to do this without giants like John Lewis, who cleared a path for us to follow. The inequity he opposed decades ago hasn’t ended yet for our youth.  There’s more to do and we will keep working every day and getting into “good trouble, necessary trouble” for our youth to have a second chance.

We thank you for joining us and for believing that we can get this done. And we thank John Lewis for his exemplary legacy.