5 Key Quotes That Sum Up What Made John Lewis Such a Legendary Leader

The late civil rights icon and longtime Georgia congressman broke ground in his actions and words. Here are some of the most memorable ones.

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The country lost a civil rights giant last week when 17-term Georgia congressman and decades-long freedom fighter John Lewis succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. Lewis, who was an ally of Martin Luther King, Jr. and marched with him across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965 as part of a historic statewide protest against racial injustice and inequity, was carried across that same bridge this past weekend, his coffin draped in the American flag and transported via horse-drawn caisson. His body was then brought to Washington, D.C., where it will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol through tomorrow before being delivered to Atlanta on Thursday for a final funeral and burial. 

The Alabama native and fierce champion of equality remained righteous till the end, notably leading a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2016 to urge for gun-control measures. It’s impossible to distill Lewis’s leadership down to any essential handful of quotes, be they written or orated. But in the interest of paying tribute to an individual whose commitment to his convictions helped galvanize a groundswell of systemic change, here are five sentiments uttered throughout the late John Lewis’s public life that are emblematic of his sense of fairness and ceaseless calls to action.

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March on Washington, August 28, 1963

“We will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: ‘Wake up America! Wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.” (Via Voices of Democracy)

“One group of people who helped us find our own courage in these communities were the local women, the matriarchal heads of so many of these households. Over and over again, we found that it was these women — wives and mothers in their 40s and 50s, hardworking, humorous, no-nonsense, incredibly resilient women who had carried such an unimaginable weight through their own lives and had been through so much unspeakable hell that there was nothing left on this earth for them to be afraid of — who showed us the way to mobilize in the towns and communities where they lived. No one was more ready, eager and willing to climb on the Freedom Riders Train in these little towns and on these little farms than the women.”

CARE 2015 National Conference, May 21, 2015

“When I was growing up in rural Alabama, 50 miles from Montgomery, outside of a little town called Troy, I would see those signs that said ‘white waiting,’ ‘colored waiting,’ ‘white men,’ ‘colored men,’ ‘white women,’ ‘colored women.’ I asked my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, ‘Why?’ And they said, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.’ But I was inspired to get in the way, to get in trouble.”(Via CARE/YouTube)

Sit-In on Floor of House of Representatives, June 22, 2016

“We have lost hundreds and thousands of innocent people to gun violence…. We have turned deaf ears to the blood of the innocent and the concern of our nation…. Newtown, Aurora, Charleston, Orlando. What is the tipping point?… Give us a vote! Let us vote! We came here to do our job. We came here to work.” (Via AP/YouTube)

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“We must never ever give up, or give in or throw in the towel. We must continue to press on! And be prepared to do what we can to help educate people, to motivate people, to inspire people to stay engaged, to stay involved and to not lose their sense of hope. We must continue to say we’re one people. We’re one family. We all live in the same house. Not just an American house but the world house. As Dr. King said over and over again, ‘We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters. If not, we will perish as fools.’”

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