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Remembering Rep. John Lewis, a Civil Rights Icon


Rep. John Lewis, the congressional leader from Georgia and lifelong advocate for freedom, equality and basic human rights for Black Americans and other underrepresented groups, died recently after a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. His passing should cause us all to pause and reflect on what he meant for this country and what he did to improve the lives of so many.

Rep. Lewis emerged as a young leader in the 1960s Civil Rights moment, where he risked his life for the cause of racial justice. Most people will remember that he was one of the original “Freedom Riders,” spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, and was severely beaten by state troopers during a nonviolent protest on Edmund Pettus Bridge. Later as a member of Congress he became a constant advocate for Black people, for people in poverty, and for other underrepresented groups. He did not waver from his moral compass that told him to use his power for the greater good, and he didn’t hesitate to speak up: even as he neared the end of his life, he protested in June with Black Lives Matter in Washington.

To me, Rep. Lewis’ passing is a reminder that to realize his vision of an America where freedom and equality are enjoyed by all, we must continue his work in the profession of psychiatry. I take heart and optimism in his vision and in what we might achieve when we follow our moral compass, no matter the struggle: for rights of Black Americans, LGBTQ people, for underrepresented minorities, for all others seeking equity.

That spirit and vision is informing the APA’s own inward look to see how we can dismantle the structural racism that has gone unaddressed in psychiatry for too long. APA’s Presidential Task Force to Address Structural Racism Throughout Psychiatry has many laudable goals that will make our organization serve our members and our patients better, but this most urgent cause has to be driven by the energy the Task Force members (chaired by APA Board Member Cheryl D. Wills, M.D.), other APA volunteers, and President Jeffrey Geller, M.D., M.P.H., have brought to it.

The Task Force’s work will no doubt complement diversity and health equity as one of the central pillars of APA’s mission and vision, because it is important to the patients we serve. Medical inequities impact millions of Americans across the country and cause ripple effects that harm minority and underrepresented groups. And while some physicians have learned more about providing care that meets patients’ cultural needs, it’s essential that we as psychiatrists continue to educate ourselves in cultural competency.

It is my hope that APA will always be an active participant in movements that seek to cement the ideals of freedom and equity that Rep. Lewis fought for his entire life. His legacy, and that of the those who stood up for freedom with him against the bile and brutality of racism, serves as a shining example to us all.


Post by Saul Levin M.D., M.P.A.

Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A., FRCP-E, is APA's CEO and Medical Director. Read Dr. Levin's full biography

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