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Celebrating the enduring legacy of John Lewis and his work with the Obama Foundation

Stories

February 21, 2024
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Representative John Lewis and President Barack Obama are sitting in a room together laughing in the middle of a conversation. Representative Lewis is sitting on a couch on the left-hand side of the image with his hands placed on his left knee. He is an older, brown-skinned man with a bald head. He is wearing a blue suit, with a white button-down shirt, and a blue tie. The couch Rep. Lewis is sitting on, is the color brown. President Obama is sitting on the right side of the image in a beige chair. He is wearing a black suit with a blue button-down shirt. His arms are placed on the side of the chair. In the room of the image is a beige coffee table with a large blue book on top of it. On the front of the book is the number, “44.” The room has beige walls with pictures on the left side. On the wall are three pictures: the largest picture features a blue background and the figure of a man’s arms and head; the second largest picture is an image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking during the March on Washington; the smallest picture is indistinguishable. In the room there is a small brown side table that sits between Rep. John Lewis and President Barack Obama. On the side table is a table lamp with a white lamp shade and two framed pictures.

Representative John Lewis stands as one of the most enduring and inspirational icons of our time. As a teenage activist in Troy, Tennessee, a young leader in the American Civil Rights Movement, and as a United States representative, John Lewis demonstrated fearless leadership in the face of adversity throughout his life. His story is one of many that made the Obamas’ journeys possible, and his legacy continues to inspire all of us here at the Obama Foundation and people around the world working in the pursuit of more just and fair societies.

In his relentless pursuit of equality, Representative Lewis is an example of how through our continued collective efforts we can bring lasting change home. On what would have been Representative Lewis’ 84th birthday, join us in remembering his legacy, his impact on the Obama Foundation, and how we will honor him at the Obama Presidential Center:

John Lewis was one of the first supporters of My Brother’s Keeper

In 2014, President Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative. The program, created in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, called on all Americans to take action on behalf of our nation’s boys and young men of color. From its inception, Rep. John Lewis was an instrumental and unwavering advocate for MBK, acting as a thought partner, educator, and mentor. Citing the importance of the men who helped guide his journey, Representative Lewis participated in numerous activities and actions with young men across the country. 

“If someone had not reached out to me, in my case it was Dr. King, I don’t know where I would be today. One man like President Obama can make a significant difference in the lives of these young men, and I applaud the president for throwing them a lifeline, to let them know someone they admire and respect wants to help them succeed.” - Rep. John Lewis, 2014 on the launch of My Brother's Keeper

In one of his last public appearances in 2020, Representative Lewis spoke to President Obama, Bryan Stevenson, Leon Ford, Jr., and LeQuan Muhammad in a virtual MBK roundtable in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. During the discussion, which centered on the mental health toll racism and state-sanctioned violence have on people of color, Representative Lewis gave his own storied advice to participants and viewers: 

“We must continue to be bold, brave, courageous, push and pull, until we redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.” – Rep. John Lewis, My Brother’s Keeper Alliance Townhall Series, 2020 Opens in a new tab

John Lewis was one of the youngest (and most radical) voices at the March on Washington
The image is of a framed program of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 1963. The frame holding the program is black and square, with white matting around the edges. The program is light beige, worn from age. In the framed map, you can see the title of the event and the date, which reads, “March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963.” Below that is text that details the program for the full day. On the left side of the program, is a mock-up of the Lincoln Memorial with symbols to identify the speaker podium, spaces to stand, and other landmarks. Outside of the frame is the hand of President Barack Obama, pointing to a line in the program (line illegible.)

President Obama pointing to a program of the March on Washington during a tour with students from Ron Brown College Preparatory High School.

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is commonly known as the seminal moment of the Civil Rights Movement. Organized by Bayard Rustin, the March was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Rep. John Lewis. As one of the youngest leaders to help orchestrate the March on Washington and the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Representative Lewis’ speech represented the potency of young Black leadership and their refusal to back down in the face of oppression. 

“To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we have long said that we cannot be patient.  We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now!  We are tired.  We are tired of being beaten by policemen.  We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, “Be patient.”  How long can we be patient?  We want our freedom and we want it now.” – Rep. John Lewis, March on Washington Speech, 1963 

The words of Representative Lewis on that momentous day continue to reverberate with thousands of young people who have turned hope into action through their work as community leaders, global activists, and elected officials. The stories of giants like Representative Lewis will be told in several exhibits at the Obama Presidential Center Museum. When our doors open in 2025, visitors will see how progressive change in our nation has come about and how that change inspired the leadership of President and Mrs. Obama.

Rep. John Lewis stayed active in social justice issues until his last days

As a civil rights activist, congressmember, and global leader, Rep. John Lewis spent his life uplifting and championing the rights of our society’s most marginalized communities. In his final years, Representative Lewis continued to educate young people across the country on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, the progress that was made, and how citizens can continue to build upon that foundation. 

In 2018, Representative Lewis and President Obama participated in a My Brother’s Keeper Alliance roundtable with students from Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, discussing the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th Anniversary of his death. During the roundtable, Representative Lewis detailed his experiences working with Dr. King and the impact of collective action as a source of systemic change for Black Americans.

Rep. John Lewis’ legacy will live on at the Obama Presidential Center
The image is an aerial image of a conceptual rendering of the  Museum tower. In the center of the image is the museum structure: it is a tall beige building. On the roof of the building is grass. On the side of the building are the words from President Obama’s speech on the 50th Anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery. Surrounding the building is an aerial of the grassy areas of Jackson Park.

Aerial image of the exterior of the Obama Presidential Museum featuring a portion of President Barack Obama’s speech on the 50th Anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery.

One of the formative moments in the legacy of Rep. John Lewis is his leadership and participation in the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In a non-violent protest, hundreds of young men and women joined together to walk 54 miles in their pursuit of voting rights for Black Americans in the South. The protest, which led to Bloody Sunday, stands as a defining moment of the Civil Rights Movement and a testament to the strength and power of courageous leaders, working to uphold the rights of each and every individual citizen. 

​To mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march, President Obama and his family joined Rep. John Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, during which President Obama gave a speech underscoring the sacrifice of those who marched in 1965 and our continued responsibility to fight for justice: 

“You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, ready to seize what ought to be. For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there is new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed. America is not the project of any one person. The single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We The People.’ ‘We Shall Overcome.’ ‘Yes We Can.’ That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.” – President Barack Obama, speech on the 50th Anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery, 2015

When the Obama Presidential Center opens, these words will be mounted on the facade of the Museum Building, giving visitors the opportunity to see and remember those words, and the work of Rep. John Lewis and so many others.

The image is a rendering of the John Lewis Plaza. The Plaza is outdoors and the ground is covered in gray concrete pavers. There are trees on the left hand side of the plaza. In the background of the plaza is the Obama Presidential Center Museum. On the right hand side of the image is the entrance to the Obama Presidential Center Forum.  On the pavers of the plaza are tables and chairs. Across the Plaza are people of different races and ethnicities, standing, sitting, and walking on the Plaza.

Conceptual rendering of the John Lewis Plaza.

The Obama Presidential Center will also honor Lewis through the John Lewis Plaza. The Plaza will act as a hub on our campus, serving as the entry point for the Forum,  Museum and Library buildings and as a space for visitors to gather. 

“John believed in the power of ordinary people to do extraordinary things. His life was a testament to this notion and he would be a fierce advocate for the training and support needed to inspire the next generation of leaders to follow in his footsteps.”  - Michael Collins, Trustee, John R. Lewis Estate

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