Rep. John Lewis wasn’t seen as a hero from the start—and there is a lesson in that

Rep. John Lewis and some of his old mug shots.

The death of Rep. John Lewis has a lot of Republicans giving lip service to Lewis’ decades of “good trouble, necessary trouble,” even as they block the legislation that would honor his memory the most fully. But it’s also important to remember that the civil rights activism that made Lewis an American hero by the end of his life was not widely seen as heroic, or even kind of okay, at the time he was getting on buses and getting beaten and arrested as a Freedom Rider.

In 1961, Gallup polling showed overwhelming public disapproval of the Freedom Riders and of sit-ins and other forms of civil rights activism. Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders taking buses across state lines into the segregated South to force the federal government to enforce Supreme Court decisions against segregation. Just 22% of people in the Gallup poll supported the Freedom Riders, while 61% disapproved. A large majority of people also said “’sit-ins’ at lunch counters, ‘freedom buses’ and other demonstrations” would hurt the cause of integration.

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