A Tribute to John Lewis: Dr. Bertie Simmons' Open Letter to Her Grandchildren About the Late Social Justice Icon by 30Seconds Mom

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A Tribute to John Lewis: Dr. Bertie Simmons' Open Letter to Her Grandchildren About the Late Social Justice Icon

When we lost social justice icon John Lewis, Dr. Bertie Simmons, author, activist, educator and grandmother, was compelled to share with her grandchildren a reminder of who he was, what he stood for and her efforts to teach them the importance of his mission, which remains hers even today at age 86.

Dear Brooke and Austin,

I am sure you are aware that an icon, Representative John Lewis, died Friday of pancreatic cancer. Representative Lewis was the son of a sharecropper who spent his lifetime fighting non-violently for racial equality. His death reminded me of the life-changing trip we took in 2003 to Gee’s Bend, Selma, and Montgomery, Alabama. Lewis carried a cloak of authority when he entered Congress after having spent many years of his life in the bloody struggle to end the Jim Crow laws. He was one of 10 young leaders who led the March on Washington, D.C., in 1963. You will recall when we visited Selma, I discussed with you the three protest marches for voting rights that occurred during March 1965 over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis joined over 600 protesters during the first march. During this first march, state troopers and county police attacked the protesters with billy clubs and tear gas. Many, including Lewis, were injured when they passed over the bridge and stepped across the county line. Law Enforcement officers beat Amelia Boynton, one of the organizers, unconscious, and Lewis was beaten by a trooper resulting in a skull fracture. As a result, this event became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

There was a second march two days later led by Martin Luther King. When the troopers stepped back to permit the marchers to step over the county line, King directed the marchers to return to Brown A.M.E. Church in Selma where they had started. The third march started in Selma on March 21, 1965. Because Martin Luther King had been working with President Lyndon Johnson, the protesters could peacefully cross the bridge and march to Montgomery, the capitol of Alabama, while protected by the Alabama National Guard.

With all these facts in mind, when we visited Selma in the spring of 2003, one of our goals was to learn about the civil rights movement as it had occurred in Selma and Montgomery. We began at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church and marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and crossed over the county line. We spent time in the park that had been created under the bridge, and Austin, do you remember jumping upon the stage, throwing your arms up in the air and beginning to preach a sermon about the unjust treatment of the protesters of 1965? After we left Selma, we visited the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and learned of her bravery in the face of racial discrimination. If you will recall, while on this trip, we all gained a richer appreciation of the struggles experienced by the blacks before and during the civil rights movement. We also recommitted ourselves to the cause of social justice for all. The passing of Representative John Lewis reminded me of our commitment and the need to take action to make the world a better place for all people. It is my hope that you, as young leaders, continue to accept this challenge and work with your mother and me in our efforts to fight for the cause of social justice. John Lewis set the example for bravery, commitment and getting into “good trouble” to be on the right side of history. He was said to be the “conscience of Congress.” Let us follow his example.

About Bertie Simmons: For 61 years Dr. Bertie Simmons, Ed.D., author of Whispers of Hope: The Story of My Life, was a dedicated educator in the Houston Independent School District (HISD). Simmons came out of retirement to serve as principal of Furr High School in 1999. During her more than 17-year tenure, she was instrumental in revitalizing the school and creating transformational opportunities for some of Houston’s most disadvantaged students. Known as a visionary and a change agent who can bring out the best in her students, the high-energy educator maintained that upbeat and infectious attitude to reach and inspire her teachers and students with her passion, knowledge, dedication and maybe even the occasional rap song or two.

The first of Simmons’ seemingly countless honors came in 1965, when she was named the HISD Teacher of the Year. That distinction was followed by many more, including HEB’s Best High School Principal in Texas award in 2011 and KHOU’s Schools Now Spirit of Texas award. In addition, Furr was one of only three schools in the nation identified for the College Board Inspiration Award in 2011 As evidence of Simmons’ indelible impact on Furr High School, education advocate and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Apple, Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, recognized Furr High School as a recipient of a $10 million grant through the XQ Super School Project. Simmons’ school was one of 10 selected from nearly 700 schools nationwide for “reimagining high school education.”

Photo: JohnLewis.house.gov

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Gwen Johnson
Great man. What a wonderful thing to do, write letters to your grandchildren. RIP Mr. Lewis.
Elisa A. Schmitz 30Seconds
What a powerful letter, based on some amazing memories and reflections. Many thanks for sharing this tribute to a great man. John Lewis will be sorely missed.
Tribe
The world lost a good man, so sad.

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