John Lewis, Civil Rights Pioneer and Longtime Congressman, Dies at 80

John Lewis, the revered civil rights pioneer who represented Georgia in Congress for nearly 35 years, died Friday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80.

Lewis became an icon of the 1960s civil rights movement through his leadership alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the non-violent protest movement and landmark peace marches of the era. He was a notable speaker at the 1963 March on Washington and in the consequential 1965 march in his native Alabama depicted in 2014’s “Selma.”

Lewis had announced in December that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

Lewis’ 60 years of social activism on a range of causes was the focus of the feature documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble” released earlier this month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saluted the stalwart Democrat as “one of the greatest heroes of American history,” calling him “the conscience of the Congress.”

“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,” Pelosi said in a statement.

Lewis organized and helped lead the consequential “Bloody Sunday” 1965 march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, as depicted in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” with Stephan James playing Lewis. That march ended with violence from Alabama state troopers against peaceful protesters. Public outrage at brutal news images of police beating Lewis and others is credited with spurring the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter called on Lewis to head the federal volunteer agency ACTION. In 1981, Lewis was elected to serve on the Atlanta City Council where he advocated for ethics in government and neighborhood preservation until his election to Congress in 1986. In 2011, President Barack Obama presented Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.

Lewis was born to sharecropper parents in Troy, Ala., on Feb. 21, 1940. Inspired by the civil protests in Montgomery, Ala. led by King, Lewis became a student leader during his undergraduate career at American Baptist Theological Seminary where he organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn. In 1961, he risked his life by participating in the famous freedom rides, which tested Southern segregation laws, and was arrested 40 times in the 1960s.

Lewis’ survivors include a son, John-Miles.


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