Action News Vault: Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis awarded 2016 Liberty Medal in Philadelphia

Sunday, July 19, 2020

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- It was four years ago when Rep. John Lewis was honored in Philadelphia as the recipient of the 2016 Liberty Medal.

Lewis, a pioneer and civil rights icon, passed away Friday at the age of 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

In 2016, Action News' Sharrie Williams and Christie Ileto reported on the Liberty Medal announcement and the ceremony celebrating Rep. Lewis.

At the National Constitution Center event, Lewis said, "It is my philosophy, very simple, if you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something."

Lewis' path to the distinct honor began with his humble beginnings in rural Pike County, Alabama.

Born in 1940, he was one of 10 children. He was the son of sharecroppers, and life revolved around church and the farm.

"His first nonviolent act was protesting his parents when they had one of his chickens for dinner," Andrew Aydin, the Digital Director and Policy Advisor to Rep. Lewis, told Action News.

As a young boy, he decided he wanted more than the work in fields.

With the Civil Rights Movement unfolding, the young John Lewis was inspired.

At age 16, he conducted his first formal protest at the whites-only public library in Troy, Alabama.

The following year, Lewis wrote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a letter - and Dr. King wrote him back.

Lewis embraced the philosophy of a non-violent movement for change.

He would be arrested time and time again for the cause. John Lewis called it liberating

"It showed him that being arrested for the right thing wasn't the end of your life," said Aydin.

He would later share the stage with Dr. King for the March on Washington: a march for jobs and freedom.

"We do not want our freedom gradually. We want it now," Lewis said during his speech then.

The following year, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, ending discrimination in schools, workplaces and public facilities.

But there was more work to do as Blacks were still being denied the right to vote.

John Lewis would help organize a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery to demand fair voting rights.

They made it only blocks, to Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they were met with a wall of resistance from state and local police.

Lewis was on his knees, his arm raised in self-defense, as a state trooper delivered a skull-cracking blow to his head

The march mobilized tens of thousands to travel to Selma to show the world it was time for change in the United States.

It motivated Congress to pass the Voter Rights Act of 1965.

"The Civil Rights Movement didn't just help Black people. It helped America reclaim its legacy of democracy," author Michael Eric Dyson told Action News in 2016.

Freedom isn't free and John Robert Lewis undoubtedly paid the price to pave a way for others.

On that September night in 2016 in Philadelphia, Lewis accepted the Liberty Medal with humility.

"There's so many other people that could be receiving such an honor. I feel more than lucky. I feel blessed," Lewis said.

Related: Local leaders remember the life of John Lewis

"John Lewis was a great civil rights leader," said Delaware Senator Chris Coons (D). "He didn't just watch history, he didn't just complain about circumstances, he made history. He changed our world."

Reverend Robert Collier, President of Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity said, "To me, he represents a brother who dedicated his life so that I may have a better quality of life. He did for me what I could not do for myself or chose not to do for myself. He put himself at risk to enable folk who were left out to have equal rights."

Lewis' death comes at a time where racial tension and frustration have reached a tipping point across the country. As thousands of protestors continue to demand police reform after the death of George Floyd, Lewis praised their activism.

"He was Black Lives Matter," said Pennsylvania Congressman Dwight Evans (D- 3rd District). "When you think about it, when he was with Dr. Martin Luther King and others, he basically was that young guy who was leading the effort. He was 23-years-old when he was there and he understood the importance that black lives meant to the country."

On Saturday, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy ordered all U.S. and state flags to be flown at half-staff.

"Our nation and world mourn the passing of a true American icon. I mourn the passing of a role model," said Murphy. "And, in our sorrow, let us commit to carrying on his work, and building upon the tremendous legacy which is John Lewis' lasting gift to us all."