John Lewis’ Fight for Equality Was Never Limited to Just the United StatesRoundup
tags: civil rights, Vietnam War, human rights, John Lewis, SNCC
Keisha N. Blain is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and President of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle.
In the wake of the recent passing of John Lewis, much of the coverage of the 80-year-old Congressman’s life has been centered on his work to advance the U.S. civil rights movement and his dedication to advancing Black rights and freedom in the United States. And with good reason: Lewis emerged on the national scene during the late 1950s when he helped to organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the Jim Crow South, and participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides, joining hundreds of volunteers who traveled throughout the South to challenge segregated bus terminals. He then went on to speak at the 1963 March on Washington and participated in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery, Ala., march.
Yet Lewis was also a vocal champion in a struggle for human rights that went far beyond the borders of the United States. As he worked to transform American society and advance Black voting rights, Lewis never lost sight of global developments. He often reminded activists that the challenges Black Americans encountered were inextricably linked to freedom struggles abroad, and a full recounting of his legacy requires seeing his work within that global context.
Lewis’ internationalist vision was significantly shaped by his earliest experiences in the movement. In 1958, Guinea had declared its independence from France, signifying a triumph in the fight to end colonialism in Africa. Following independence, Black activists traveled to Guinea to witness firsthand the building of a postcolonial socialist nation. Lewis was one of them: In 1964, he traveled to Guinea, along with ten other activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). With the help of civil rights activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte, the group boarded a flight from New York City to Conakry, Guinea’s capital. They planned to be in Guinea for three weeks, with plans to meet with the nation’s first president, Sékou Touré.
While in Africa, Lewis also unexpectedly crossed paths with Malcolm X at an airport in Nairobi, Kenya. Their unexpected encounter marked the beginning of a relationship between SNCC and the black nationalist leader. As SNCC began to embrace a more militant and internationalist platform, they drew heavily on Malcolm’s teachings.
Lewis’ trip across Africa and his dialogues and exchanges with African activists and leaders was transformative. He was deeply inspired by their victories and emboldened in his political work. In the years to follow, he also became more vocal about the need to link national concerns to global ones.
That connection was already clear on March 7, 1965, when Lewis joined hundreds of activists peacefully crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in an attempt to bring greater attention to the movement for civil rights. They were viciously beaten by state troopers. The incident, dubbed “Bloody Sunday,” left Lewis with a concussion and fractured skull. In a speech delivered shortly before he was admitted to a local hospital, Lewis pointed out the hypocrisy of American foreign policy: “I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam—I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo—I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma.”