Rep. John Lewis, the sharecroppers’ son who became a giant of the civil rights movement, died Friday after a months-long battle with cancer, his family said. He was 80.
The longtime Georgia congressman, an advocate of non-violent protest who had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, was the last surviving speaker from 1963’s March on Washington.
“He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise,” former President Barack Obama said in paying tribute to a man he called a personal hero. “And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., described Lewis as “one of the greatest heroes of American history.”
“John Lewis was a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation — from the determination with which he met discrimination at lunch counters and on Freedom Rides, to the courage he showed as a young man facing down violence and death on Edmund Pettus Bridge, to the moral leadership he brought to the Congress for more than 30 years,” the speaker said in a statement.
Lewis announced in late December that he was undergoing treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
“I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said in a statement at the time.
“He was honored and respected as the conscience of the U.S. Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother,” his family said in a statement Friday night. “He was a stalwart champion in the ongoing struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being. He dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America. He will be deeply missed.
Lewis had served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987, where he was sometimes referred to as the “conscience of Congress.” He often voted and spoke out against U.S. military interventions, including the Iraq War.
His activism continued even as he was battling the cancer that claimed his life. Lewis issued a statement on Jan. 5 slamming the drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
“I want to be clear in my unequivocal condemnation of yesterday’s unauthorized military strike,” he said. “Many times, I warned that war is bloody, costly, and destroys the hopes and dreams of a generation. Failure to learn from the lessons of history means that we are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past.”
He also returned to the bridge in Selma on March 1st to mark the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and urged marchers ahead of the Alabama primary to “keep the faith. Keep our eyes on the prize. We must go out and vote like we have never voted before.”
“Help redeem the soul of America,” he said.
And as the country was engulfed by violent protests in May over the death of George Floyd during his arrest in Minnesota, Lewis spoke out again. “Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long,” he said in a statement to protesters. “Rioting, looting and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive.”
One of his final tweets, on July 7, was accompanied by his mug shots after he was “released from Parchman Farm Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson, MS for using a so-called ‘white’ restroom during the Freedom Rides of 1961.”
His illness didn’t stop him from fending off a primary challenge in June. He won with 87 percent of the vote.
In one of his final acts, Lewis, along with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., sent a letter earlier Friday to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seeking millions in funding to help educate students about civics and government.
“John’s final act of public service was also about civic education: he and I sent a letter yesterday urging more money to be spent on civics courses in elementary, middle, and high schools. Even on the last day of his life, John never stopped working to improve the lives of others,” McCarthy said in a statement.
The Congressional Black Caucus praised Lewis’ fearlessness and said that his mere presence “encouraged a new generation of activist to ‘speak up and speak out’ and get into ‘good trouble’ to continue bending the arc toward justice and freedom.”
Born near Troy, Alabama on Feb. 21, 1940 and raised on a cotton farm, Lewis attended segregated public schools — and questioned why after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio.
“I would ask my mother and my father and my grandparents, my great grandparents, ‘Why?’ And they would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble,'” he recalled in a 2015 speech. “The action of Rosa Parks and the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired me to find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble – good trouble, necessary trouble.”
He attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., where he became involved in the non-violent protest movement, helping to organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. The protesters were attacked physically, and Lewis was arrested repeatedly, but the campaign was successful.
“I grew up sitting on those lunch counter stools,” Lewis said.
Lewis then became one of the original Freedom Riders in 1961, taking buses from the North to the Deep South to protest segregation at interstate bus terminals. The 5’5 Lewis was badly beaten during a stop in South Carolina.
By 1963, he’d become chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and was one of the speakers at the March on Washington, site of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want our freedom now,” Lewis, then 23, told the massive crowd.
Lewis also fought for voting rights, which is what he was championing when he helped lead a group of about 600 across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965. The marchers were confronted by Alabama state troopers, who told them to disperse.
“We were kneeling” when “they started beating us with nightsticks, trampling us with horses, releasing the tear gas,” Lewis recalled in a 2015 interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I lost consciousness. I don’t recall how I made it back across that bridge.”
King and other religious leaders came to Selma after “Bloody Sunday” and “I knew something good was going to happen,” Lewis said. The incident helped spur passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He continued working on civil rights issues and was elected to the City Council in Atlanta in 1981. He ran for Congress five years later and won, and has represented Georgia’s Fifth District ever since.
Embedded in the fabric of his legacy is the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.. Lewis had championed a bill to make the museum a reality for 15 years before it was in 2003 signed into law by then-President George W. Bush.
In the 2008 presidential election, Lewis initially supported then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, but by that February had switched his allegiance to then-Sen. Obama, who would become the country’s first Black president. After Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Lewis asked him to sign a picture of the event.
Obama wrote, “Because of you, John.”
Obama awarded Lewis the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2011.
“In so many ways, John’s life was exceptional,” Obama said in a statement Friday. “But he never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country might do. He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, a longing to do what’s right, a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect. And it’s because he saw the best in all of us that he will continue, even in his passing, to serve as a beacon in that long journey towards a more perfect union.
Lewis’s relationship with Obama’s successor was frosty. Lewis refused to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration, telling NBC News he didn’t consider him “a legitimate president.”
“I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton,” Lewis told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Trump responded on Twitter, saying Lewis “should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart.” Lewis, Trump wrote, was all “talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”
Lewis spoke out forcefully from the House floor in favor of Trump’s impeachment ahead of last year’s historic Dec. 18 vote.
“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something,” Lewis said. “We have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”
Lewis was honored as an American hero by those who mourned him Friday night.
“He gave a voice to the voiceless, and he reminded each of us that the most powerful nonviolent tool is the vote,” Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said in a tweet.
Lewis’s wife of 44 years Lillian died on New Year’s Eve, 2012. They’re survived by one son, John-Miles.