John Lewis, Civil Rights Icon and Congressman, Dies at 80

Lewis was the last surviving member of the “Big Six” activists, who organized the 1963 March on Washington

John Lewis

John Lewis, the civil rights icon who played a key role in some of the most important battles of the era and went on to serve more than 30 years as an unwavering progressive congressman from Georgia, died Friday following a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80.

Lewis was the last surviving member of the “Big Six,” the group of prominent Black civil rights leaders who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington. The others were Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young.

Born in Troy, Alabama, in 1940 to parents who were sharecroppers, Lewis became active in the civil rights movement while in college in Tennessee, organizing demonstrations to protest segregation throughout Nashville. Lewis was one of the original 13 freedom riders, the group of activists who risked their lives riding integrated buses through the segregated South. He participated in the group’s first ride on May 4, 1961.

In 1960, Lewis was a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and would eventually become the group’s third chairman. It was in that role that he helped organize the 1963 march. While it was best known for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it also featured Lewis as the event’s youngest speaker.

During the event, Lewis found himself at odds with the other organizers over the content of his speech, which in its original form called for a more aggressive style of nonviolent activism, and opposed President John Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill as, essentially, a token measure. However, in the final version of his speech, Lewis said instead that he supported the bill with “great reservation” and urged activists to “get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes.”

Lewis came to national attention in 1965 as one of the organizers of the Selma to Montgomery marches, where, on March 5, he and other protesters were victims of horrific police brutality as they stopped to pray on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an event now known as “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis was hospitalized with severe injuries. The impact of the marches and the nauseating spectacle of a brutal, racist response from police was immense. President Lyndon Johnson condemned the violence and came out in support of the marchers, proposing a voting rights bill to Congress 10 days later. The landmark Voting Rights Act passed in August of that year.

Lewis became a tireless voting rights activist throughout the 1970s. He entered politics with an unsuccessful bid to win the Democratic primary for Georgia’s 5th congressional district in 1977, after which was appointed associate director of ACTION for the Carter administration. He left the job in 1980 and the next year won a seat on the Atlanta city council. In 1986, Lewis tried again to enter congress and succeeded; he represented the 5th district from 1987 until his death.

As a congressman, Lewis was known for his steadfast support for the Democratic party and his refusal to compromise his progressive values, leading to him being nicknamed “the conscience of Congress.”

Among his dozens of accolades, Lewis was a Presidential Medial of Freedom recipient who was awarded dozens of honorary degrees. He continued his activism for civil rights, racial justice and progressive politics until his death.

He married Lillian Miles in 1968, and they remained together until her death in 2012. They had one child, their son John-Miles Lewis.

As news of his death became public, tributes poured in from peers and admirers.