Rep. John Lewis Civil Rights Icon And Last Living Speaker At The March On Washington, Has Died…

Stephen A. Crockett Jr.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civ­il rights leader who served in Congress since 1987, has died after a months-long bat­tle with pan­cre­at­ic can­cer, Friday. He was 80.

Lewis was diag­nosed with stage 4 can­cer on December 2019 and under­went treat­ment while remain­ing in office. Lewis would become one of President Trump’s fiercest oppo­nents — right up until his death — in a polit­i­cal and civ­il rights career that began some 50 years ago.

Lewis’s life reads like a fic­tion­al movie char­ac­ter cre­at­ed to span the entire civ­il rights move­ment through one per­son. He was born on February 21, 1940, to Willie Mae (née Carter) and Eddie Lewis, both of whom were share­crop­pers. Lewis was one of nine chil­dren, raised in Troy, Ala. He would attend Pike County Training High School, in Alabama, and lat­er, American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University, both in Nashville, Tenn. Lewis would become a fix­ture on the Nashville civ­il rights scene where he fre­quent­ly led sit-ins — one of which led to the deseg­re­ga­tion of Nashville lunch coun­ters — and began attend­ing non­vi­o­lence work­shops that would lead him to a non­vi­o­lent civ­il rights phi­los­o­phy that he still believed in right up until his death.

Lewis knew ear­ly on that he want­ed to be a free­dom fight­er after feel­ing the impact that Jim Crow laws had on him as a child.

I saw racial dis­crim­i­na­tion as a young child,” Lewis said in a 2005 inter­view with NPR. “I saw those signs that said ‘White Men, Colored Men, White Women, Colored Women’. … I remem­ber as a young child with some of my broth­ers and sis­ters and first cousins going down to the pub­lic library try­ing to get library cards, try­ing to check some books out, and we were told by the librar­i­an that the library was for whites only and not for ‘col­oreds’.”

Lewis cred­its a child­hood trip to the North, to Buffalo, N.Y., as the first time he saw white men and black men work­ing togeth­er. He would also be fas­ci­nat­ed by water foun­tains with­out signs des­ig­nat­ing them for whites only. Lewis would lis­ten to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks on the radio and would meet them both while only a teenager.r

In 1960, Lewis would become one of the orig­i­nal 13 Freedom Riders, who would ride bus­es to chal­lenge seg­re­gat­ed seat­ing in the South. In 1963 — at only 23 — he would become one of the youngest mem­bers of the “Big Six” lead­ers as chair­man of the Student Nonviolent Coördinating Committee (SNCC) and the youngest speak­er at the March on Washington. During his three years with SNCC, Lewis would help SNCC launch the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a push to orga­nize and reg­is­ter black vot­ers in Mississippi. Lewis was also inte­gral in open­ing the Freedom Schools, alter­na­tives to pub­lic schools most­ly in the South, that were com­plete­ly free and aimed to help teach African American chil­dren learn to think and act polit­i­cal­ly.

On March 7, 1965 — a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday” — Lewis, sev­er­al reli­gious lead­ers, activists, and some 600 marchers attempt­ed to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to protest the police shoot­ing death of unarmed pro­test­er Jimmie Lee Jackson a few weeks ear­li­er. The plan was for marchers to walk to then-Gov. George Wallace’s office to ask ques­tions about Jackson’s death. Gov. Wallace said that there would be no march and ordered the Alabama Highway Patrol chief to “use what­ev­er mea­sures are nec­es­sary to pre­vent a march.”

Lewis, stood beside Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as he led march across the bridge. At the end of the bridge, marchers were con­front­ed by Alabama State Troopers, who ordered them to leave. Instead they began to pray. Police then launched tear gas, while mount­ed troops began beat­ing non­vi­o­lent pro­test­ers with night­sticks. Lewis’ skull was frac­tured in the mêlée and the scars from that day were still vis­i­ble as he got old­er. The visions of police beat­ing pro­test­ers, which were broad­cast­ed across America, would prompt President Lyndon B. Johnson into sign­ing the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965.

Lewis would turn his atten­tion to change on a gov­ern­men­tal lev­el in 1977 when he would run an unsuc­cess­ful cam­paign to win Atlanta’s 5th con­gres­sion­al dis­trict seat. In 1981, Lewis was elect­ed to the Atlanta City Council and in 1986, Lewis ran again for the 5th Congressional District seat in a tough cam­paign to beat favorite Julian Bond for the Democratic nom­i­na­tion. He would go on to beat Republican Portia Scott in the gen­er­al elec­tion. Lewis has been a con­gres­sion­al jug­ger­naut since, win­ning the seat every elec­tion since.

.Lewis was the only liv­ing speak­er from the March on Washington on stage dur­ing Barack Obama’s inau­gu­ra­tion in 2009 and lat­er Obama would sign a pho­to of him­self to Lewis with the words. “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.”

Lewis would go on to win sev­er­al hon­orary doc­tor­ates and awards for his civ­il rights work, most notably the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 from President Obama and the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for the third install­ment of March, a graph­ic nov­el depict­ing his life dur­ing the civ­il rights move­ment along­side co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell. The first two vol­umes of March were pub­lished in 2013 and 2015, respec­tive­ly.

The New York Times would call the series “A gal­va­niz­ing account of his com­ing-of-age in the move­ment, it’s a cap­sule les­son in courage of con­science, a sto­ry that inspires with­out mor­al­iz­ing or sim­pli­fy­ing in hind­sight.”

From the Times:

March begins and draws to a close with scenes from the march Lewis led in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, for­ev­er known as “Bloody Sunday” after state troop­ers and the local police attacked the non­vi­o­lent pro­test­ers. The open­ing pan­els depict the marchers gath­ered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, then move from their tense, prayer­ful faces to the pha­lanx of bil­ly clubs and white hel­mets on the oppo­site bank. Lewis, then only 25, was beat­en that day; five months lat­er, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

In what has now become a band­wag­on, Lewis was one of the few Congress mem­bers to announce, even before President Donald Trump took office, that he had no inten­tions or work­ing with an open­ly racist elect­ed offi­cial.

I don’t see this pres­i­dent-elect as a legit­i­mate pres­i­dent,” Lewis said in an inter­view with NBC’s Meet the Press a week before Trump was sworn into office. “I think the Russians par­tic­i­pat­ed in help­ing this man get elect­ed and they have destroyed the can­di­da­cy of Hillary Clinton.”

Lewis was fierce­ly loy­al to the fight for equal rights and made no bones about his loy­al­ty. As such, he didn’t attend Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion, the first one he’s missed since being elect­ed to Congress.

You can­not be at home with some­thing that you feel is wrong,” Lewis said.

During impeach­ment pro­ceed­ings against Trump in 2019, Lewis gave an impas­sioned speech on the House floor.

When you see some­thing that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral oblig­a­tion to say some­thing, do some­thing,” Lewis said Wednesday. “Our chil­dren and their chil­dren will ask us: ‘What did you do? What did you say?’”

Lewis, a fight­er since birth, not­ed that he was in a fight for his life after learn­ing of his can­cer diag­no­sis in December 2019 dur­ing a rou­tine med­ical vis­it.

I’ve been in some kind of fight — for free­dom, equal­i­ty, basic human rights – for near­ly my entire life,” he told AJC in December. “I have nev­er faced a fight quite like this one.”

In a December state­ment, Lewis was hope­ful about advances in can­cer research and his chances to win his health bat­tle. 

I have decid­ed to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fight­ing for the Beloved Community,” he said. “We still have many bridges to cross.”