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Mayor Purzycki Issues Tribute Honoring Late Civil Rights Icon John Robert Lewis

July 27, 2020

The body of the civil rights icon will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol

Wilmington today is adding its own citywide tribute to the worldwide honors for civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis, who died on July 17. After a weekend of commemorations in his home state of Alabama, the body of Mr. Lewis will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol today in Washington D.C. A motorcade escorting his body will travel through Washington to the Capitol, passing numerous locations including the new Black Lives Matter Plaza, the site of Mr. Lewis’s last public appearance.

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki today issued the following tribute honoring Congressman Lewis. In it, the Mayor praised Lewis’s lifelong advocacy for civil rights as well as leading by example in ushering in a new generation of activists and leaders to carry on the nonviolent struggle to secure and protect basic human dignity for all of society’s marginalized members. The original Mayoral Tribute expressing Wilmington’s condolences has been sent to the Congressman’s family.


OFFICE OF THE MAYOR TRIBUTE Be it hereby known to all that Michael S. Purzycki, Mayor for the City of Wilmington, recognizes

John Robert Lewis

A longtime activist and the United States Congressman for more than three decades until his passing, on July 17, 2020, at the age of 80, Lewis was an icon of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and continued advocating for civil rights and social justice right up until the end of his long, exemplary life.

Born to sharecropper parents in rural, segregated Alabama in 1940, Lewis took up the cause of civil rights early in life, becoming a respected student leader in Nashville, then as one of the original Freedom Riders risking his life traveling from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, then serving as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group he helped to found. In this role, he became one of the so-called “Big Six” leaders who organized the famous March on Washington in 1963. This would all lead him to that fateful day on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965 – the infamous “Bloody Sunday” – when Lewis and more than 600 peaceful marchers were viciously attacked and beaten by police on their way to Montgomery. The fractured skull Lewis received that day left him with scars on his head that he bore for the rest of his life. Had he done nothing more, John Lewis had already earned his place alongside the likes of his friend and mentor Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, and Medgar Evers, and so many others in the pantheon of legendary civil rights activists. But Lewis was far from being done.


Civil rights icon and United States Congressman John Lewis listens to a question.

Civil rights icon and United States Congressman John Lewis answer questions from Metropolitan Urban League Young Professionals members during a Town Hall Meeting “50 Years After Selma Civil Rights in America” Forum Friday, March 04, 2016, at the DoubleTree Hotel in Wilmington Delaware. Photo By Saquan Stimpson

Though battered and bloodied, John Lewis never became bitter or vengeful. He remained committed to the nonviolent struggle to secure and protect basic human dignity for all of society’s marginalized members while simultaneously building up and strengthening communities across this nation. Lewis was a larger-than-life figure who cared for humanity generally, but who also genuinely loved individual people regardless of color, belief, or background and wanted only that they be given the opportunity to flourish.

As an activist, a leader, and a legislator, he focused on supporting individuals in their struggle to make a better life all in the name of a greater good. He was hopeful until the end, getting into “good trouble” even as discord and division tore at the fabric of his “Beloved Community” in America.

Wilmington, a city that is nearly sixty percent African American, is in no way immune to the many challenges rooted in racial strife, both historically and in the present day. John Lewis last visited Delaware’s largest city in 2015 to talk about some of those same challenges as well as share his life’s story. I was not yet Mayor at that time, but since being given the privilege to lead Wilmington a year and a half after Lewis walked these streets and met with residents, I have drawn inspiration from his special combination of tenacity, determination, poise, and grace. His example helped to inform my own vision for Wilmington to be a more just and equitable city, one where people from all walks of life come together in a single city-wide community, and where every member is treated with dignity and respect while being provided an equal opportunity to reach their individual aspirations.

And that was what John Lewis did best – lead by example. Perhaps more than any policy initiative he spearheaded or piece of legislation originating in Washington, I truly believe that Wilmington’s residents have benefitted most from his example, his conviction that, even when times seem dark, anything is possible if you stay true to your vision and never – ever – give up. I don’t think it was mere coincidence that just eighteen months after Lewis came through our state that Delaware finally elected its first-ever African American congressional representative when voters sent Lisa Blunt Rochester to Washington, D.C. easily.

A well-known American singer once observed that “There is nothing more sad or glorious than generations changing hands.” These words came to mind upon learning of John Lewis’ passing. He was among the last of a generation that fought – and died – in an effort to hold America to its original promises of justice and equality. But he also did much to usher in a new generation of young activists and leaders to carry on that righteous struggle. Black Lives Matter would not be possible today were it not for the marches, sit-ins, and freedom rides that Lewis was an integral part of from an early age. Though it must have saddened him that a movement like Black Lives Matter was even necessary so many years beyond the civil rights movement he helped lead, he remained the eternal optimist.

Wilmington extends its condolences to the many friends and family of John Lewis and will always be grateful to him for his leadership and his sacrifice, which will surely inspire many generations to come.