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.
Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did:https://t.co/KbVfYt5CeQ
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) July 18, 2020
— Rev Jesse Jackson Sr (@RevJJackson) July 18, 2020
Thank you for your care and kindness, your advice and understanding. Will never forget what you taught me and what you challenged me to be. Better. Stronger. Bolder. Braver. God bless you, Ancestor John Robert Lewis of Troy, Alabama. Run into His arms. https://t.co/DTUEw7cJzX
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) July 18, 2020
There’s going to be a lot of politicians lifting up John Lewis’ legacy in one hand while still upholding structural racism with the other. And as soon as they’re able, they’ll return to upholding racism with both hands. We see this every MLK holiday. Sad but not surprising.
— Bree Newsome Bass (@BreeNewsome) July 18, 2020
"History will not be kind to us. So you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to speak up, speak out and get in good trouble. You can do it. You must do it. Not just for yourselves but for generations yet unborn." – John Lewis#RIPJohnLewis pic.twitter.com/Xl6uWB6Ty8
— W. Kamau Bell (@wkamaubell) July 18, 2020
John Lewis was a giant among men. A Civil Rights Icon, an indefatigable champion for justice, and a hell raiser known for making ‘good trouble.’
In mourning his passing, let us aspire to build the nation that Congressman Lewis believed it could be.
May he Rest In Peace. pic.twitter.com/sDJ169T9bE
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) July 18, 2020
John Lewis was and will always be an American hero and champion for civil rights, who inspired us all to make good trouble in the fight for justice.
Rest in power, Rep. John Lewis.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) July 18, 2020
I won’t forget when my son Luke met John Lewis. Luke did not know John’s story then, but he was touched by John’s presence. He later told me: “That man was important, mom.” He was so right. I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve with a person of such righteous character.
— Rep. Katie Porter (@RepKatiePorter) July 18, 2020
Rest. In. Paradise John Lewis. #CivilRightsICON✊???? THANK YOU!! ????????
— LeBron James (@KingJames) July 18, 2020
The news hits deep. And to the core. John Lewis dead. Can it really be? He had strength, courage, and heart enough for many lifetimes. We were young once. So many memories. So much distance traveled. So much further to go. Farewell my friend. We shall overcome someday.
— Dan Rather (@DanRather) July 18, 2020
Heartbroken by the news of John Lewis’ passing. I was honored to meet him several times and I was always struck that he was both a person of trememdous moral leadership and a caring, kind, compassionate man. The country has lost a man that made us all better. Rest in power.
— Neera -Wear a Mask -Tanden (@neeratanden) July 18, 2020
Devastating news: civil rights leader, Georgia congressman and American hero John Lewis has died. pic.twitter.com/5DbUT8TDQi
— Joy Reid (@JoyAnnReid) July 18, 2020
With Congresman John Lewis passing this evening our nation has lost a civil rights giant, one of the original freedom riders, and the only surviving speaker of the March On Washington where Dr. King gave his ‘I Have A Dream Speech’ pic.twitter.com/xgNzIOfljB
— Yashar Ali ???? (@yashar) July 18, 2020
John Lewis was so committed to equal justice, and so wildly ahead of his time, that he delivered an impassioned speech in opposition to DOMA decrying its homophobia. In 1996! The man was a visionary. https://t.co/XwQWEcwhUc
— Mark Joseph Stern (@mjs_DC) July 18, 2020