Born in 1940 to sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, John Lewis became a leader of the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He joined the Freedom Rides that began in 1961, traveling to the south by bus to fight segregation on interstate buses.
He was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and became its chair in 1963. He helped organize the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lewis was the youngest and last survivor of the “Big Six” Civil Rights activists, a group led by King. When he attended Barack Obama‘s inauguration in January 2009, he was the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington. After the inauguration, Obama gave Lewis a photograph signed “Because of you, John. Barack Obama“. In 2011 he awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian honor.
In Selma, Alabama, in 1965, as activists tried to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge, Lewis was walking at the head of the march with his hands tucked in the pockets of his overcoat when he was knocked to the ground and beaten by police. His skull was fractured. Nationally televised images of the brutality forced attention on racial oppression in the South. That incident, along with other beatings during peaceful protests, left Lewis with scars for the rest of his life.
Within days, there were more marches in Alabama. President Lyndon Baines Johnson soon pressured Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which became law later that year.
Lewis was elected Representative of Georgia’s fifth district in 1987 and held the office until his passing on Friday from cancer at 80 years old. He announced that he had stage four pancreatic cancer eight months ago, saying:
“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.“
Lewis was arrested at least 45 times, including in 2013 at a rally for Immigration Reform. Even after his cancer diagnosis, Lewis continued to speak out, expressing hope that Black Lives Matter protests would lead to real change. Last month, he said:
“….while we have been down this road before, this time I have hope. As a nation, and as a people, we’re going to get there. We’re going to make it. We’re going to survive and there will be no turning back.”
“I first met John when I was in law school, and I told him then that he was one of my heroes. Years later, when I was elected a U.S. senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders. When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made. And through all those years, he never stopped providing wisdom and encouragement to me and Michelle and our family. We will miss him dearly.
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.
Afterwards, I spoke to him privately, and he could not have been prouder of their efforts. 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.”
“John’s life reminds us that the most powerful symbol of what it means to be an American is what we do with the time we have to make real the promise of our nation – that we are all created equal and deserve to be treated equally.”
Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi has ordered flags at the Capitol to be flown at half-staff in Lewis’s honor. Our current president is playing golf and has not made comment.