Rep. John Lewis, the sharecroppers’ son who became a giant of the civil rights movement, died Friday after a monthslong battle with cancer, his family said. He was 80.
The longtime Georgia congressman, an advocate of nonviolent protest who had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, was the last surviving speaker from 1963’s March on Washington.
“He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise,” former President Barack Obama said in paying tribute to a man he called a personal hero. “And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., described Lewis as “one of the greatest heroes of American history.”
“John Lewis was a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation — from the determination with which he met discrimination at lunch counters and on Freedom Rides, to the courage he showed as a young man facing down violence and death on Edmund Pettus Bridge, to the moral leadership he brought to the Congress for more than 30 years,” the speaker said in a statement.
Lewis announced in late December that he was undergoing treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
“I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said in a statement at the time.
“He was honored and respected as the conscience of the U.S. Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother,” his family said in a statement Friday night. “He was a stalwart champion in the ongoing struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being. He dedicated his entire life to nonviolent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America. He will be deeply missed.”
Lewis had served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987, where he was sometimes referred to as the “conscience of Congress.” He often voted and spoke out against U.S. military interventions, including the Iraq War.
His activism continued even as he was battling the cancer that claimed his life. Lewis issued a statement on Jan. 5 slamming the drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
“I want to be clear in my unequivocal condemnation of yesterday’s unauthorized military strike,” he said. “Many times, I warned that war is bloody, costly, and destroys the hopes and dreams of a generation. Failure to learn from the lessons of history means that we are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past.”
He also returned to the bridge in Selma on March 1 for the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and urged marchers ahead of the Alabama primary to “keep the faith. Keep our eyes on the prize. We must go out and vote like we have never voted before.”
“Help redeem the soul of America,” he said.
And as the country was engulfed by violent protests in May over the death of George Floyd during his arrest in Minnesota, Lewis spoke out again. “Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long,” he said in a statement to protesters. “Rioting, looting and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive.”
One of his final tweets, on July 7, was accompanied by his mug shots after he was “released from Parchman Farm Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson, MS for using a so-called ‘white’ restroom during the Freedom Rides of 1961.”
His illness didn’t stop him from fending off a primary challenge in June. He won with 87 percent of the vote.
In one of his final acts, Lewis, along with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., sent a letter Friday to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seeking millions in funding to help educate students about civics and government.
“John’s final act of public service was also about civic education: he and I sent a letter yesterday urging more money to be spent on civics courses in elementary, middle, and high schools. Even on the last day of his life, John never stopped working to improve the lives of others,” McCarthy said in a statement.
The Congressional Black Caucus praised Lewis’ fearlessness and said that his mere presence “encouraged a new generation of activist to ‘speak up and speak out’ and get into ‘good trouble’ to continue bending the arc toward justice and freedom.”
Born near Troy, Alabama, on Feb. 21, 1940, and raised on a cotton farm, Lewis attended segregated public schools — and started to question that after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio.
“I would ask my mother and my father and my grandparents, my great grandparents, ‘Why?’ And they would say: ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble,'” he recalled in a 2015 speech. “The action of Rosa Parks and the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired me to find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble — good trouble, necessary trouble.”