WASHINGTON — John Lewis was the 23-year-old son of Alabama sharecroppers and already a veteran of the civil rights movement when he came to the capital 50 years ago this month to deliver a fiery call for justice on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Mr. Lewis’s urgent cry — “We want our freedom, and we want it now!” — was eclipsed on the steps that day by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. But two years later, after Alabama State Police officers beat him and fractured his skull while he led a march in Selma, he was back in Washington to witness President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today Mr. Lewis is a congressman from Georgia and the sole surviving speaker from the March on Washington in August 1963. His history makes him the closest thing to a moral voice in the divided Congress. At 73, he is still battling a half-century-old fight.
With the Voting Rights Act in jeopardy now that the Supreme Court has invalidated one of its central provisions, Mr. Lewis, a Democrat, is fighting an uphill battle to reauthorize it. He is using his stature as a civil rights icon to prod colleagues like the Republican leader, Eric Cantor, to get on board. He has also met with the mother of Trayvon Martin and compared the shooting of the unarmed Florida teenager to the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.
Mr. Lewis has an answer for those who say the election of a black president was a fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream: It was only “a down payment,” he said in an interview.
“There’s a lot of pain, a lot of hurt in America,” Mr. Lewis said in his office on Capitol Hill, which resembles a museum with wall-to-wall black-and-white photographs of the civil rights movement. Current events, he said, “remind us of our dark past.”
But Mr. Lewis, a longtime practitioner of civil disobedience (he has been arrested four times since joining Congress), is also encouraged. He said he found it gratifying to see peaceful throngs “protesting in a nonviolent fashion” after George Zimmerman was acquitted in Mr. Martin’s killing. Last week, he created a minor dust-up by telling Britain’s Guardian newspaper that Edward J. Snowden, the national security contractor who leaked classified documents, could argue that he was “appealing to a higher law,” but later condemned the leaks.
Now Mr. Lewis is introducing himself to a new generation by telling the story of his life as a Freedom Rider in “March,” a graphic novel that is being released this week. The book’s co-author is a young aide, Andrew Aydin, who pestered Mr. Lewis until he agreed to cooperate; it is modeled on a 1958 comic about Dr. King, which inspired early sit-ins.
Mr. Lewis remains a link to that past. At a recent Urban League convention in Philadelphia, he was on fire as he told the crowd how his parents reacted when he asked about colored-only signs a lifetime ago in the Deep South.
“They would say, ‘That’s the way it is, don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble,’ ” Mr. Lewis thundered in a preacher’s cadence. “But one day, I was inspired to get in the way, to get in trouble. And for more than 50 years, I’ve been getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble! And it’s time for all of us to get in trouble again!”
Last month, the congressman made a splash at Comic-Con in San Diego, where Lou Ferrigno, the original Incredible Hulk, was among the fans who lined up to see him. But it was serious business, a way for him to reach young people, Mr. Lewis said, and fulfill his duty to “bear witness” and “tell the story.”
Each year, Mr. Lewis leads an emotional re-enactment of the so-called Bloody Sunday march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the brutal police response horrified the nation. Mr. Cantor participated this year, bringing his college-age son, and said he came away “very moved” — a sentiment that Mr. Lewis will no doubt play on during negotiations over a new bill.
“John is what I call a gentle spirit,” said Roy Barnes, a former Georgia governor, recalling a visit Mr. Lewis paid him in 2001 when he was wrestling with removing the Confederate emblem from the state flag.
“He said, ‘Right before I lost consciousness, I looked up and saw an Alabama state trooper beating me on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and all I could see was a confederate flag on his helmet,’ ” Mr. Barnes recalled. “He said, ‘I want you to remember that.’ ”
At the Urban League conference, a pantheon of civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, mingled backstage, but all eyes were on Mr. Lewis. Convention workers asked for pictures. Benjamin Crump, the Martin family lawyer, clutched a copy of “March,” hoping for an autograph. Teary-eyed strangers asked for hugs.
It is often this way for Mr. Lewis. He seems sheepish about the attention, and his speeches hint at survivor’s guilt. “All I did was give a little blood on that bridge,” he often says. Pointing to old photos, he refers to himself as “young John Lewis,” as if he were seeing someone else.
It is a long way from dusty Troy, Ala., where Mr. Lewis, one of 10 children, picked cotton and preached the Gospel to his chickens. His life took a turn when, at 18, he wrote to Dr. King. Mr. Lewis was studying at a Baptist seminary in Nashville, but was thinking about trying to integrate his hometown college, Troy State, now Troy University. Dr. King sent bus fare for Mr. Lewis to meet him in nearby Montgomery.