John Lewis, a leading figure of the civil rights movement who endured brutal beatings as he led non-violent protests to end racial segregation in the 1960s, and then went on to a career in Congress as one of its most enduring moral voices, died on Friday. He was 80.
Democratic leaders announced his death. Lewis revealed in late December that he was undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer.
“Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history: Congressman John Lewis, the Conscience of the Congress,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“All of us were humbled to call Congressman Lewis a colleague, and are heartbroken by his passing. May his memory be an inspiration that moves us all to, in the face of injustice, make ‘good trouble, necessary trouble.”
He was one of the original Freedom Riders, who trekked across the South in a bus ride to desegregate public transportation and accommodation and, along with a dozen others, were met by angry mobs. He was assaulted a number of times, including a beating in a Greyhound bus station in Montgomery where he was hit in the head and knocked unconscious.
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Lewis was the last of the surviving of six leaders who organized the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, and the last living speaker who addressed the crowds at the Lincoln Memorial that day, immortalized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“We do not want our freedom gradually, we want to be free now,” Lewis said on that day. “We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again, and then they holler ‘Be patient.’ How long can patient?”
Still in his early 20s, Lewis had become chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which was trained in the philosophy and tactics of non-violent demonstrations as they staged sit-ins and other actions to desegregate the south.
A turning point in the movement came on March 7, 1965, when Lewis and Hosea Williams led 600 voting rights marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, only to be brutally attacked by state troopers waiting on the other side. Lewis was beaten to the ground and his skull was fractured. The TV pictures of authorities spraying tear gas and clubbing peaceful marchers that day, known as “Bloody Sunday,” helped galvanize public support for passage of the Voting Rights Act.
At the time of the release of the movie Selma
in 2014, Lewis recalled in an interview
the moments that he and Williams stopped on the bridge as they saw a flank of state troopers, holding billy clubs and other weapons, blocking their way on the other side of the Alabama River. Lewis said that the movie accurately depicted the moment when Williams asked him, “Can you swim?”
“Even today I don’t know how to swim,” Lewis said. “But as we crossed the bridge on Bloody Sunday, I think Hosea thought there was a possibility we could be going overboard, or something could happen that we could jump in the water. But I preferred taking my chances by just walking straight ahead, and that is what I did.”
Although Lewis scaled back public appearances in recent months as he underwent cancer treatments, he did visit the focal point of Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, and expressed optimism over the movement.
In one of his last interviews, on June 4 he told Gayle King on CBS This Morning, “You cannot stop the call of history. You may use troopers. You may use fire hoses and water, but it cannot be stopped. There cannot be any turning back. We have come too far and made too much progress to stop now and go back.”
Lewis also was the subject of the recently released documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, which was released on July 3. The movie, directed by Dawn Porter, travels from the life-changing meeting a teenage Lewis had with King, his mentor, in 1957, and other highlights of his life and career.
Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940, near the town of Troy, Alabama, initially with hopes of becoming a preacher.
“With the help of my brothers and sisters and cousins, we would gather all of our chickens in the chicken yard, and I would start preaching to the chickens. They never quite said ‘Amen,'” he told NPR in 2018
A teacher encouraged him to read, and when he graduated from high school, he wrote a letter to King, who invited him to meet him in Montgomery.
“I was so scared. I didn’t know what to say or what to do,” Lewis recalled to NPR. “And Dr. King said, ‘Are you the boy from Troy?’
“And I said, ‘Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis.’ I gave my whole name. But he still called me the ‘boy from Troy,'”
He attended segregated schools and went to American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University in Nashville. As a student, he began attending non-violent workshops and, with other students, organized sit-ins at whites only lunch counters.
“I was assigned to go to Woolworth, and we would go in and take our seat. Orderly, peaceful. Reading a back, writing a paper, all day, and then we would come back the next day, waiting to be served,” Lewis recalled in an interview. The demonstrators remained peaceful as they endured taunts and physical assaults. Recalled being arrested for the first time, Lewis said that “holding my head high, I felt so liberated. I felt so free, like I crossed over.”
All told, Lewis said that he had been arrested 40 times in the 1960s.
Lewis went into politics in 1981, first with a seat on the Atlanta City Council, and then in Congress, after winning his Georgia seat in 1986.
When the first African-American president, Barack Obama, awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. “Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind,” Obama said.
Lewis was a staunch opponent of President Donald Trump and refused to attend his inauguration. He spoke out as the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and when the administration targeted undocumented immigrants, and led a group of lawmakers following the Las Vegas mass shootings in 2017.
“How many more must die?” Lewis said, adding, “I lost colleagues in Mississippi and Alabama to gun violence. We lost Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to a man with a rifle. We lost Senator Robert Kennedy to a man with a handgun. We have seen too many gun deaths and I am here to say right now, ‘This must stop, and it must stop now.’”
In a 2012 C-SPAN interview, Lewis said that “somehow we got to humanize our politics. Just be human. Humanize our institution. It is hard, it is difficult for elected officials to say, you know, I love you.”
Jon Meacham, who is publishing a biography of Lewis in October, wrote on Twitter that the last words he told him in their final conversation a few weeks ago were, “Keep the faith. Keep the faith.”