US civil rights hero and Democratic congressman, dies at 80
On Friday night, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, confirmed Lewis had died. He had been suffering from pancreatic cancer. Barack Obama, the first African American president, said Lewis “loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise”.
Lewis campaigned for civil rights to the very end of his life. Obama also said it was “fitting that the last time John and I shared a public forum was at a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists who were helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death”.
Born to sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, in February 1940, Lewis became a prominent leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He joined the Freedom Rides that began in 1961, traveling to the south by bus to fight segregation on interstate buses.
A founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he became its chair in 1963 and helped organise the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
Lewis was the youngest and last survivor of the “Big Six” civil rights activists, a group led by King. When he attended Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, he was the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington. Obama presented Lewis with a commemorative photograph signed “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.” In 2011 he awarded Lewis the presidential medal of freedom.
In Selma, Alabama, in 1965, as activists tried to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge, Lewis was walking at the head of the march with his hands tucked in the pockets of his overcoat when he was knocked to the ground and beaten by police. His skull was fractured. Nationally televised images of the brutality forced attention on racial oppression in the south. That incident, along with other beatings during peaceful protests, left Lewis with physical scars for the rest of his life.
Within days, King led more marches in Alabama. President Lyndon B Johnson soon was pressing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. The bill became law later that year, removing barriers that had barred black people from voting.
Lewis was elected congressman for Georgia’s fifth district in 1987 and held the office until his death. He announced he was being treated for stage 4 pancreatic cancer in December last year.
“I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life,” he said. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”
On Friday, Obama said: “I first met John when I was in law school, and I told him then that he was one of my heroes. Years later, when I was elected a US senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders. When I was elected president of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made.
“And through all those years, he never stopped providing wisdom and encouragement to me and Michelle and our family. We will miss him dearly.
“It’s fitting that the last time John and I shared a public forum was at a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists who were helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“Afterwards, I spoke to him privately, and he could not have been prouder of their efforts … I told him that all those young people – of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation – they were his children. They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it.”
Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, paid tribute, saying Lewis fought “the good fight”.
Former president Bill Clinton said Lewis “gave all he had to redeem America’s unmet promise of equality and justice for all” and “became the conscience of the nation”.
Pelosi said: “Every day of John Lewis’s life was dedicated to bringing freedom and justice to all. As he declared 57 years ago during the March on Washington, standing in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial: ‘Our minds, souls, and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all the people.’
“How fitting it is that even in the last weeks of his battle with cancer, John summoned the strength to visit the peaceful protests where the newest generation of Americans had poured into the streets to take up the unfinished work of racial justice.”
In 2001, Lewis boycotted the inauguration of George W Bush because he did not believe the Republican had fairly been awarded victory over the Democratic nominee, Al Gore. On Friday night, the most senior Republican in Congress, Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said Lewis was a “pioneering civil rights leader who put his life on the line to fight racism”.
“Congressman Lewis’ place among the giants of American history was secure before his career in Congress had even begun,” McConnell said. “You did not need to agree with John on many policy details to be awed by his life.
“Dr King famously said ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’… Our great nation’s history has only bent towards justice because great men like John Lewis took it upon themselves to help bend it. Our nation will never forget this American hero.”
Late last year, a spokesperson for Lewis said the congressman had been arrested 40 times during the civil rights era and he had been arrested several other times since, including in 2013 at a rally for immigration reform.
Even while ill earlier this year and unable to work on Capitol Hill, Lewis continued to speak out and expressed hope that Black Lives Matter protests would lead to real change. In early June, he said that while he had “been down this road before” in seeing large-scale protests erupting against systemic racism, this time gave him hope.
“As a nation, and as a people, we’re going to get there. We’re going to make it,” he told NBC in an interview.
Despite the fact he was clearly ailing, he appeared to be signaling to a new generation of leaders.
“We’re going to survive and there will be no turning back,” he said.
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