Georgia Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis died Friday, as the country he dedicated his life to continued reckoning with structural racism in the midst of a global health crisis.
Lewis, who was 80, had announced in December he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, according to the New York Times. He lived in Atlanta and is survived by his son John Miles.
“He was honored and respected as the conscience of the US Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother,” Lewis spokeswoman Brenda Jones said in a written statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He was a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being. He dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America. He will be deeply missed.”
“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,” said President Barack Obama in a post on Medium Friday.
Born to sharecroppers on February 21, 1940, outside of Troy, Alabama, Lewis was one of the most beloved mainstays of the American civil rights movement. His commitment to nonviolence stemmed from brutal experiences as a young Freedom Rider organizer—footage of Alabama police beating Lewis on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma on March 7th, 1965 helped galvanize public support for the Voting Rights Act’s passage five months later.
“When we arrived at the apex of the Edmund Pettus bridge, we saw a sea of blue: Alabama State Troopers,” Lewis said in a Washington University in St. Louis documentary about the “Bloody Sunday” in Selma where police beat and brutalized peaceful civil rights demonstrators. “There were about 600 of us walking in twos. It was a very peaceful orderly protest.”
“I had no idea that we would be beaten, that we would be trampled or tear gassed. I thought we would all be arrested and jailed,” he added. Lewis suffered a fractured skull on “Bloody Sunday,” and by his count he had more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries during his activist years.
Lewis was named Chairman of the influential Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966. Inspired by his mentor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis’s enduring philosophy was to act courageously and morally was to get into “trouble."
King “inspired me to stand up, to speak up, and speak out. And I got in the way, I got in trouble — good trouble, necessary trouble...You must find a way to get in the way and get in good trouble, necessary trouble...You have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, when you leave here, to go out and seek justice for all. You can do it. You must do it,” Lewis said.
Lewis was elected to Atlanta’s City Council in 1981, and then elected to Congress in November 1986 as a Democrat representing the 5th District.
“John Lewis changed this country without showing hate or rancor or vengeance. He suffered on his body. He bared the wounds of the movement,” said Rev. Al Sharpton Saturday at his National Action Network’s weekly Saturday Action Rally in Harlem. “So by the time he went to Congress, his body bore the wounds, bore the actual wounds of the struggle. That's why when he walked around Congress he had the moral authority nobody had. That's why he was a conscience of this nation.”
Lewis also pushed to make the Civil Rights Act more expansive. As the youngest speaker in the 1963 March on Washington, he advocated in a early draft of his speech for explicit protection from police brutality and dismantling the police state reinforced by Jim Crow laws:
The country's reaction after "Bloody Sunday" inspired him to tap the growing support for the slate of civil rights legislation, Lewis said in the Washington University documentary. “But in Selma, we had a response from the American people, people came there in the days after Bloody Sunday. There were demonstrations, nonviolent protests in more than 80 major cities in America, people didn't like what they saw happening there. There was a sense that we had to do something, we had to do it now.”
He added, “We—literally, in my estimation—wrote the Voter Rights Act with our blood, and with our feet.”
Lewis’s long-time advocacy for the Voting Rights Act was born out of his belief that civil rights would be hobbled without a robust legal protection of the right to vote for all citizens.
"I have said this before, and I will say it again. The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy,” he said.
“In 1975, he championed the expansion of the Voting Rights Act to protect not just African Americans but language minorities like Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asian Americans who had been disenfranchised as well. He powerfully advocated for each reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act—in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006,” according to Mother Jones.
Lewis saw that the work wasn’t done, after the 2013 Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision that struck down the “heart” of the Voting Rights Act—as the Atlantic wrote, “communities facing new discriminatory voting laws have had to file suits themselves or rely on Justice Department suits or challenges from outside advocates—sometimes after the discriminatory laws have already taken effect.”
More recently, Senate Republicans refused to take up legislation last year to restore and update the Voting Rights Act by requiring states with a long history of voting discrimination to once again get federal approval for any changes to voting procedures.
“In a primary season marred by voting problems, like six-hour lines in Lewis’ home state of Georgia, it’s been sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk for 225 days,” Mother Jones reported of HR4.
Even as recently as two weeks ago, Lewis agreed to chair a voter registration drive, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. said on Twitter, calling him “the gift that kept on giving.”
Lewis helped write a three-part graphic book about his experience in the civil rights movement, the last volume which won the National Book Award in 2016 for Young People’s Literature.
In his acceptance speech for the award, Lewis wept as he recalled visiting his local library as a child in rural Alabama, only to be told that library cards were reserved for white people:
Lewis’s death comes one day after the death of civil rights leader Rev. Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian Thursday, who died at age 95 of natural causes.
In May, Lewis said in a statement that his "heart breaks" with the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and drew a direct line from the 1955 murder of Emmett Till to Floyd: “Despite real progress, I can't help but think of young Emmett today as I watch video after video after video of unarmed Black Americans being killed, and falsely accused. My heart breaks for these men and women, their families, and the country that let them down — again. My fellow Americans, this is a special moment in our history. Just as people of all faiths and no faiths, and all backgrounds, creeds, and colors banded together decades ago to fight for equality and justice in a peaceful, orderly, non-violent fashion, we must do so again,” Lewis said in a statement, adding "peaceful protest is the way to achieve the justice and equality that we all deserve."
“It’s fitting that the last time John and I shared a public forum was at a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists who were helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death,” President Obama wrote. “Afterwards, I spoke to him privately, and he could not have been prouder of their efforts — of a new generation standing up for freedom and equality, a new generation intent on voting and protecting the right to vote, a new generation running for political office,” Obama wrote. “I told him that all those young people — of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — they were his children. They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it. They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they had heard of his courage only through history books.”
President Donald Trump ordered flags to be flown at half-mast for 24 hours at all federal buildings, grounds and military vessels in honor of Lewis.
For more information on Lewis’s extraordinary life, visit the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s special section dedicated to him: https://www.ajc.com/john-lewis/