US Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) died July 17 at age 80. In addition to a lifetime of civil rights activism, a long career as an elected representative, and a celebrated stint as an award-winning author, Lewis was a dedicated advocate for libraries and made many appearances at American Library Association (ALA) events over the years.
In 2013, to mark the launch of the first book in his graphic novel series, March (cowritten with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell), Lewis was an Auditorium Speaker at the 2013 Annual Conference and Exhibition.
Former American Libraries Senior Editor George M. Eberhart chronicled the memories Lewis shared at that event: “In 1956, when John Lewis was a boy of 16 in Troy, Alabama, he went downtown with his brothers and sisters and cousins to the Pike County Public Library to get library cards. When they got there, the librarian told them that the library was for whites only, not for ‘coloreds.’ He never returned to that library until July 5, 1998, when he went to sign his new book, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. He was warmly welcomed by an audience both black and white, and the library staff belatedly presented him with a library card.”
When Book 2 of March was released in 2015, Lewis, Aydin, and Powell spoke with Booklist Editor Sarah Hunter. “We’ve tried to tell the whole story and make it plain, so others will be inspired to take action,” Lewis said. “The movement was not perfect; we all were human. But we did our best. We told it as we saw it and as we experienced it.”
In 2016, the ALA Annual Conference was held in Orlando, just weeks after the Pulse nightclub shooting that took the lives of 49 LGBT people and injured 53 more. During a memorial service organized by ALA’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (now the Rainbow Round Table), Lewis spoke briefly but movingly about staying strong in the face of violence and continuing to fight for justice.
The following year, Book 3 of the March series swept the Youth Media Awards, picking up the Coretta Scott King Author Book Award, Michael L. Printz Award, Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award, and YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.
Lewis joined tens of thousands of demonstrators, including around 200 librarians, at the Atlanta March for Social Justice and Women, which occurred during the 2017 Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits. “I know something about marching, and I’m ready to march again,” he told the crowd. He said that when you see something is wrong, you have a mandate to oppose it.
“We cannot afford to be silent,” he said. “We should be standing up, getting in the way, and getting into good trouble, necessary trouble…. Don’t let anybody turn you around.”