U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader who served in Congress since 1987, has died after a months-long battle with pancreatic cancer, Friday. He was 80.
Lewis was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer on December 2019 and underwent treatment while remaining in office. Lewis would become one of President Trump’s fiercest opponents—right up until his death—in a political and civil rights career that began some 50 years ago.
Lewis’ life reads like a fictional movie character created to span the entire civil rights movement through one person. He was born on February 21, 1940, to Willie Mae (née Carter) and Eddie Lewis, both of whom were sharecroppers. Lewis was one of nine children, raised in Troy, Ala. He would attend Pike County Training High School, in Alabama, and later, American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University, both in Nashville, Tenn. Lewis would become a fixture on the Nashville civil rights scene where he frequently led sit-ins—one of which led to the desegregation of Nashville lunch counters—and began attending nonviolence workshops that would lead him to a nonviolent civil rights philosophy that he still believed in right up until his death.
Lewis knew early on that he wanted to be a freedom fighter after feeling the impact that Jim Crow laws had on him as a child.
“I saw racial discrimination as a young child,” Lewis said in a 2005 interview with NPR. “I saw those signs that said ‘White Men, Colored Men, White Women, Colored Women’. ... I remember as a young child with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins going down to the public library trying to get library cards, trying to check some books out, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for ‘coloreds’.”
Lewis credits a childhood trip to the North, to Buffalo, N.Y., as the first time he saw white men and black men working together. He would also be fascinated by water fountains without signs designating them for whites only. Lewis would listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks on the radio and would meet them both while only a teenager.r
In 1960, Lewis would become one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, who would ride buses to challenge segregated seating in the South. In 1963—at only 23—he would become one of the youngest members of the “Big Six” leaders as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the youngest speaker at the March on Washington. During his three years with SNCC, Lewis would help SNCC launch the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a push to organize and register black voters in Mississippi. Lewis was also integral in opening the Freedom Schools, alternatives to public schools mostly in the South, that were completely free and aimed to help teach African American children learn to think and act politically.
On March 7, 1965—a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday”—Lewis, several religious leaders, activists, and some 600 marchers attempted to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to protest the police shooting death of unarmed protester Jimmie Lee Jackson a few weeks earlier. The plan was for marchers to walk to then-Gov. George Wallace’s office to ask questions about Jackson’s death. Gov. Wallace said that there would be no march and ordered the Alabama Highway Patrol chief to “use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march.”
Lewis, stood beside Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as he led march across the bridge. At the end of the bridge, marchers were confronted by Alabama State Troopers, who ordered them to leave. Instead they began to pray. Police then launched tear gas, while mounted troops began beating nonviolent protesters with nightsticks. Lewis’ skull was fractured in the melee and the scars from that day were still visible as he got older. The visions of police beating protesters, which were broadcasted across America, would prompt President Lyndon B. Johnson into signing the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965.
Lewis would turn his attention to change on a governmental level in 1977 when he would run an unsuccessful campaign to win Atlanta’s 5th congressional district seat. In 1981, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council and in 1986, Lewis ran again for the 5th Congressional District seat in a tough campaign to beat favorite Julian Bond for the Democratic nomination. He would go on to beat Republican Portia Scott in the general election. Lewis has been a congressional juggernaut since, winning the seat every election since.
.Lewis was the only living speaker from the March on Washington on stage during Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and later Obama would sign a photo of himself to Lewis with the words. “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.”
Lewis would go on to win several honorary doctorates and awards for his civil rights work, most notably the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 from President Obama and the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for the third installment of March, a graphic novel depicting his life during the civil rights movement alongside co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell. The first two volumes of March were published in 2013 and 2015, respectively.
The New York Times would call the series “A galvanizing account of his coming-of-age in the movement, it’s a capsule lesson in courage of conscience, a story that inspires without moralizing or simplifying in hindsight.”
From the Times:
March begins and draws to a close with scenes from the march Lewis led in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, forever known as “Bloody Sunday” after state troopers and the local police attacked the nonviolent protesters. The opening panels depict the marchers gathered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, then move from their tense, prayerful faces to the phalanx of billy clubs and white helmets on the opposite bank. Lewis, then only 25, was beaten that day; five months later, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
In what has now become a bandwagon, Lewis was one of the few Congress members to announce, even before President Donald Trump took office, that he had no intentions or working with an openly racist elected official.
“I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president,” Lewis said in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press a week before Trump was sworn into office. “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected and they have destroyed the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”
Lewis was fiercely loyal to the fight for equal rights and made no bones about his loyalty. As such, he didn’t attend Trump’s inauguration, the first one he’s missed since being elected to Congress.
“You cannot be at home with something that you feel is wrong,” Lewis said.
During impeachment proceedings against Trump in 2019, Lewis gave an impassioned speech on the House floor.
“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, do something,” Lewis said Wednesday. “Our children and their children will ask us: ‘What did you do? What did you say?’”
Lewis, a fighter since birth, noted that he was in a fight for his life after learning of his cancer diagnosis in December 2019 during a routine medical visit.
“I’ve been in some kind of fight—for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life,” he told AJC in December. “I have never faced a fight quite like this one.”
In a December statement, Lewis was hopeful about advances in cancer research and his chances to win his health battle.
“I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community,” he said. “We still have many bridges to cross.”