Rep. John Lewis

A lion of the Civil Rights Movement and ‘conscience of Congress’ dies at 80

Free Press staff, wire reports | 7/23/2020, 6 p.m.
Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a lion of the Civil Rights Movement whose bloody beating by Alabama state troopers in …
Rep. John Lewis

ATLANTA - Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a lion of the Civil Rights Movement whose bloody beating by Alabama state troopers in 1965 helped galvanize opposition to racial segregation, and who went on to a long and celebrated career in Congress, died late Friday, July 17, 2020. He was 80.

“The world has lost a legend; the Civil Rights Movement has lost an icon; the City of Atlanta has lost one of its most fearless leaders; and the Congressional Black Caucus has lost our longest serving members,” members of the CBC said in a statement released last week. Rep. Lewis “remained devoted to the philosophy of nonviolence in his fight for justice and equality, even to this day, as America faces another reckoning with racism and hundreds of thousands around the world spark a modern-day Civil Rights Movement against police brutality and racial injustice.”

Tributes poured in honoring Rep. Lewis, from Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as from people across the nation who, while they did not know the congressman personally, said their lives have been impacted by Rep. Lewis’ fight for voting rights and equal rights.

An impromptu memorial has sprung up in Atlanta under the 65-foot-high mural of Rep. Lewis that towers over the city’s Sweet Auburn district. People left flowers, notes, candles and other tributes to Rep. Lewis, the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists who were instrumental in organizing and participating in the landmark August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called him “one of the greatest heroes of American history.”

“All of us were humbled to call Congressman Lewis a colleague, and are heartbroken by his passing,” Speaker Pelosi said. “May his memory be an inspiration that moves us all to, in the face of injustice, make ‘good trouble, necessary trouble.’ ”

Rep. Lewis announced in late December 2019 that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said at the time.

The announcement of his death came just hours after the death of the Rev. C.T. Vivian, another civil rights leader, who died early last Friday at 95.

His wife of four decades, Lillian Miles Lewis, died in 2012. They had one son, John Miles Lewis. Funeral arrangements are expected to be announced later this week.

Rep. Lewis will be forever linked in history and memory for leading about 600 protesters in the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in March 1965. At age 25, walking at the head of the march with his hands tucked in the pockets of his tan overcoat, Rep. Lewis was knocked to the ground and beaten by police. His skull was fractured. Nationally televised images of the brutality forced the country’s attention on racial oppression in the South.

Within days, Dr. King led more marches in Alabama, and President Lyndon Johnson soon was pressing Congress to pass the federal Voting Rights Act. The bill became law later that year, removing barriers that had barred Black people from voting.

“He loved this country so much that he risked his life and its blood so that it might live up to its promise,” former President Obama said in a statement upon learning of Rep. Lewis’ death. “Early on, he embraced the principles of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience as the means to bring about real change in this country.”

Rep. Lewis was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his epochal “I Have a Dream” speech.

A 23-year-old firebrand, Rep. Lewis toned down his intended remarks at the insistence of others, dropping a reference to a “scorched earth” march through the South and scaling back criticisms of President Kennedy. It was a potent speech nonetheless in which he vowed: “By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in an image of God and democracy.”

Rep. Lewis also served as the keynote speaker in Richmond at the June 2019 dedication of the newly renamed Arthur Ashe Boulevard. He was warmly embraced by the crowd of thousands attending the ceremony outside the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

Rep. Lewis spoke then about his childhood, his bloody encounter as a Freedom Rider in 1961trying to beat back segregated bus transportation and terminal waiting rooms in small Southern towns and cities and the need, still, for change in the nation.

“I try to speak through actions,” he told the Richmond crowd. He said it’s time for young people and others to get in “good trouble, necessary trouble” to “change things for the better.”

Rep. Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940, outside the town of Troy in Pike County, Ala. He grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools.

As a boy, he wanted to be a minister, and practiced his oratory on the family chickens. Denied a library card because of the color of his skin, he became an avid reader and could cite obscure historical dates and details even in his later years. He was a teenager when he first heard Dr. King preaching on the radio. They met when Rep. Lewis was seeking support to become the first Black student at Alabama’s segregated Troy State University.

He ultimately attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. He began organizing sit-in demonstrations at whites-only lunch counters and volunteering as a Freedom Rider, enduring beatings and arrests while traveling around the South to challenge segregation.

Rep. Lewis helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, and was named its chairman in 1963, making him one of the Big Six at a tender age. The others, in addition to Dr. King, were Whitney Young of the National Urban League; A. Philip Randolph of the Negro American Labor Council; James L. Farmer Jr., of the Congress of Racial Equality; and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP. All six met at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York to plan and announce the March on Washington.

The huge demonstration galvanized the movement, but success didn’t come quickly. After extensive training in non- violent protest, Rep. Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams led demonstrators on a planned march of more than 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, on March 7, 1965. A phalanx of police blocked their exit from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

Authorities shoved, then swung their truncheons, fired tear gas and charged on horseback, sending many to the hospital and horrifying much of the nation. Dr. King returned with thousands, completing the march to Montgomery before the end of the month.

Rep. Lewis turned to politics in 1981, when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. He won his seat in Congress in 1986 and spent much of his career in the political minority. After Democrats won control of the House in 2006, Rep. Lewis became his party’s senior deputy whip, a behind-the-scenes leadership post in which he helped keep the party unified.

In June 2016, Rep. Lewis led House Democrats in 26-hour sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to push for federal gun control legislation in the wake of a mass shooting at an Orlando night club in which 49 people were killed and 53 others were wounded.

He also worked for 15 years to gain approval for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Humble and unfailingly friendly, Rep. Lewis was revered on Capitol Hill. But as one of the most liberal members of Congress, he often lost policy battles, from his effort to stop the Iraq War to his defense of young immigrants.

He met bipartisan success in Congress in 2006 when he led efforts to renew the Voting Rights Act, but the U.S. Supreme Court later invalidated much of the law, and it became once again what it was in his youth, a work in progress. Later, when the presidency of Donald Trump challenged his civil rights legacy, Rep. Lewis made no effort to hide his pain. He refused to attend President Trump’s inauguration, saying he didn’t consider him a “legitimate president” because Russians had conspired to get him elected.

When President Trump later complained about immigrants from “s---hole countries,” Rep. Lewis declared, “I think he is a racist ... we have to try to stand up and speak up and not try to sweep it under the rug.”

Rep. Lewis said he’d been arrested 40 times in the 1960s, five more as a congressman. At 78, he told a rally he’d do it again to help reunite immigrant families separated by the Trump administration.

“There cannot be any peace in America until these young children are returned to their parents and set all of our people free,” Rep. Lewis said in June. “If we fail to do it, history will not be kind to us,” he said. “I will go to the border. I’ll get arrested again. If necessary, I’m prepared to go to jail.”

In a speech the day of the House impeachment vote of President Trump, Rep. Lewis explained the importance of that vote.

“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something. Our children and their children will ask us ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ We have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”

In 2011, Rep. Lewis was honored by then President Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and they marched hand in hand in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday attack in 2015.