WASHINGTON - John Robert Lewis, a champion of civil rights for African Americans and longtime U.S. lawmaker, has died. He was 80.
The veteran congressman died Friday after a yearlong battle with advanced-stage pancreatic cancer.
Lewis rose to fame as a leader of the modern-day American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. At 23, he worked closely with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and was the last surviving speaker from the August 1963 March on Washington where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
During the historic gathering, Lewis reminded America of the power of the civil rights movement.
“By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: ‘Wake up, America! Wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient,” Lewis said to a crowd of 250,000.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama said, “In so many ways, John’s life was exceptional. 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.”
President Donald Trump tweeted Saturday: “Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family.”
Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 18, 2020
Born February 21, 1940, outside Troy, Alabama, Lewis was the son of sharecroppers and grew up in the racially segregated South. He was not able to vote, enroll in college or obtain a public library card because he was Black.
Lewis wrote a letter to King in 1957 telling him he wanted to be the first Black student to attend the local whites-only Troy State College (now Troy University). Lewis told The Atlantic, “I submitted my application and my high school transcript” but “I never heard a word from the school, so that gave me the idea that I should write Dr. King.”
Determined to be a part of the struggle for equal rights, Lewis graduated from one of the nation's historically black colleges and universities, Fisk University in Nashville, in 1963 with a degree in religion and philosophy.
As a student, he organized sit-in demonstrations at whites-only lunch counters and staged bus boycotts. Lewis was one of the 13 original “Freedom Riders” beaten and arrested for riding alongside white passengers on interstate buses in the South.
Two years later as chairman of the influential Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he helped register thousands of Black voters in places like Alabama and Mississippi.
“I’ve always fought for what was right,” Lewis said.
As a 25-year-old activist, Lewis was badly beaten by white Alabama state troopers as he and 600 peaceful demonstrators marched for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965. Lewis suffered a fractured skull. Television images of the incident known as “Bloody Sunday” caused a national awakening to the need to end racial discrimination.
“I was beaten, bloody and tear-gassed, fighting for what’s right for America. Our country would never, ever be the same, because of what happened on this bridge," Lewis said of the history-making event.
Later that year, Lewis stood next to President Lyndon Johnson when he signed the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. The legislation outlawed discriminatory voting practices that kept Blacks from gaining political power.
The civil rights movement led Lewis into a career of politics. He was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981 and to Congress in 1986, calling the latter victory “the honor of a lifetime.” He served 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia’s 5th District.
Sometimes called the “conscience of the Congress,” Lewis fought for income equality for minorities, criminal justice reform, gun safety and health care for all. In recognition of his achievements, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama in 2011.
After White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany tweeted, “We hold his family in our prayers,” Trump ordered the American flag to be flown at half-staff throughout the day Saturday at all public buildings, grounds, military installations, naval vessels and other facilities in the U.S. and abroad “as a mark of respect for the memory and long-standing public service of Representative John Lewis.”
"Every day of John Lewis’ life was dedicated to bringing freedom and justice to all,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “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.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “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.”
While under cancer treatment, he returned to Alabama to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“We must go out and vote like we never, ever voted before,” he said. “I'm not going to give up. I'm not going to give in. We're going to continue to fight. We must use the vote as a nonviolent instrument or tool to redeem the soul of America."
Before his death, Lewis endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination for president in April 2020. In one of his last public statements, the congressman said, “I cannot stand by and watch President Trump undo the progress we fought so hard for.”
Lewis’ longtime friend and fellow civil rights activist Jesse Jackson said Lewis would be remembered for risking his life to change America for the better.
Wayne Lee and Fern Robinson contributed to this story.