On July 17 America lost a civil rights icon with the passing of Congressman John Lewis. While this sad development came at a fraught time in U.S. race relations, Mr. Lewis’ death also leaves the international community bereft of a leader whose moral courage provided universal lessons and inspiration for many worldwide suffering human rights abuses.
John Lewis’ legacy involves his immense personal sacrifices to help American society fight the scourge of racism as well as for his service as U.S. Representative to Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. The Congressman had faith in America to withstand division and hate, he saw the promise of his country and he forced American society to become better. Lewis’ lifework to secure the dignity of every human being will continue to have profound lessons for marginalized communities in the U.S.
Yet, Mr. Lewis’ legacy does not end at American shores. For years going forward, his contributions will sustain and fortify oppressed communities far from U.S. soil.
The lessons and teachings from Mr. Lewis’ 60+ years fight for equality are ecumenical, having application to peoples of all backgrounds irrespective of skin color, religion, customs or geography. His brave deeds hold relevance and educational value today as the world is confronted with secular divisions, geopolitical rivalries and systemic human rights violations.
While some may consider it fanciful thinking to believe that Mr. Lewis’ noble actions can change the brutal policies coming out of Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran and Caracas, many fail to consider that those languishing under these regimes can find hope from the Congressman’s story. This is part and parcel of a long tradition of oppressed groups outside of the United States receiving fortitude and strength from American civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and now Congressman Lewis.
Political leaders, clergy, educators and others seeking to improve the plight of oppressed groups today – – the Uighurs of China; rights activists in Hong Kong; Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar; political prisoners in North Korea and Iran; the destitute and food-deprived in Venezuela – – will continue to look to John Lewis’ narrative on how the efforts of one person can make a difference amid hate and oppression. Lewis’ belief in common humanity, love and the pursuit of equality will continue to serve as a model for these and other persecuted peoples.
Critics assert that while Mr. Lewis’ efforts show the capacity of democratic societies to change for the good, such activism has no applicability to the harsh facts on the ground in authoritarian systems such as China, North Korea, Iran and Venezuela. Yet, the examples set by Congressman Lewis are particularly compelling for others overseas who strive to secure basic, fundamental rights amongst persecution in their own lands. This, too, will serve as an important part of Mr. Lewis’ legacy.
Amid ongoing human rights abuses in our world today (North Korea and China as just two cases) in which civilians are tortured and subjected to forced labor and executions due to their dissenting political views or faith, Lewis’ lifelong work of championing human rights is as relevant as ever on the international stage. While his activism was the target of violent maltreatment by the state, John Lewis was undeterred by setbacks. His example of resilience will continue to serve as a guiding light for those enduring the heavy hand of oppression, providing faith in their continued fight for dignity and freedom.
Ted Gover, Ph.D., writes on foreign policy and is the director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.