John Lewis, U.S. congressman and civil rights leader, dies at 80 – National

0
57
John Lewis, U.S. congressman and civil rights leader, dies at 80 - National

John Lewis, a long-serving U.S. Congress member and civil rights icon, has passed away at the age of 80.

Lewis announced in December that he had been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. He continued his work in Congress despite his illness and as he received treatment.

Read more:
U.S. Rep John Lewis vows to remain in office despite stage 4 pancreatic cancer

The last surviving speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech, Lewis also led the first march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., two years later, on a day that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” after white police officers attacked the Black demonstrators.

Lewis suffered a head injury in the conflict, which began as a non-violent protest — a path Lewis championed throughout his life as both an activist and elected official.

Story continues below advertisement

He was elected to represent Georgia’s fifth congressional district in 1986 as a Democrat, staying in office until his death.

In 2011, former President Barack Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour of the United States.






John Lewis diagnosed with pancreatic cancer


John Lewis diagnosed with pancreatic cancer

Lewis’ death was confirmed Friday evening by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who echoed her friend’s oft-quoted command to make “good trouble, necessary trouble” in the push for change and civil rights.

“John Lewis was a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation,” Pelosi said, calling him “the Conscious of Congress.”

“In the Congress, John Lewis was revered and beloved on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Capitol. All of us were humbled to call Congressman Lewis a colleague, and are heartbroken by his passing.”

Story continues below advertisement

Lewis’s announcement of his cancer diagnosis — “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said — inspired tributes from both Democrats and Republicans, and an unstated accord his passing would represent the end of an era.

Civil rights champion

Lewis was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, a group led by King that had the greatest impact on the movement.

At age 25 — walking as he led some 600 protesters in Selma with his hands tucked in the pockets of his tan overcoat — Lewis was knocked to the ground and beaten by police. His skull was fractured, and nationally televised images of the brutality forced the country’s attention on racial oppression in the South.

Story continues below advertisement

Within days, King led more marches in the state, and President Lyndon Johnson soon was pressing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. The bill became law later that year, removing barriers that had barred Blacks from voting.

In his speech at the March of Washington, which he helped organize along with King and four other civil rights leaders, Lewis vowed: “By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in an image of God and democracy.”

It was almost immediately, and forever, overshadowed by the words of King, the man who had inspired him to activism.

Story continues below advertisement

Read more:
Elijah Cummings, powerful Democratic congressman, dies at age 68

Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940, outside the town of Troy, in Pike County, Alabama. He grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools.

As a boy, he wanted to be a minister, and practiced his oratory on the family chickens. Denied a library card because of the colour of his skin, he became an avid reader, and could cite obscure historical dates and details even in his later years. He was a teenager when he first heard King preaching on the radio. They met when Lewis was seeking support to become the first Black student at Alabama’s segregated Troy State University.

He ultimately attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He began organizing sit-in demonstrations at whites-only lunch counters and volunteering as a Freedom Rider, enduring beatings and arrests while travelling around the South to challenge segregation.

Story continues below advertisement

Lewis helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was named its chairman in 1963, making him one of the Big Six at a tender age. The others, in addition to King, were Whitney Young of the National Urban League; A. Philip Randolph of the Negro American Labor Council; James L. Farmer Jr., of the Congress of Racial Equality; and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP. All six met at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York to plan and announce the March on Washington.

The huge demonstration galvanized the movement, but success didn’t come quickly. After extensive training in nonviolent protest, Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams led demonstrators on a planned march of more than 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, on March 7, 1965. A phalanx of police blocked their exit from the Selma bridge.

Authorities shoved, then swung their truncheons, fired tear gas and charged on horseback, sending many to the hospital and horrifying much of the nation. King returned with thousands, completing the march to Montgomery before the end of the month.

More ‘good trouble’ in politics

Lewis turned to politics in 1981, when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council.

He won his seat in Congress in 1986 and spent much of his career in the minority. After Democrats won control of the House in 2006, Lewis became his party’s senior deputy whip, a behind-the-scenes leadership post in which he helped keep the party unified.

Story continues below advertisement






Civil rights leader John Lewis pays his respects to President George H.W. Bush


Civil rights leader John Lewis pays his respects to President George H.W. Bush

In an early setback for Barack Obama’s 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Lewis endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination. Lewis switched when it became clear Obama had overwhelming Black support. Obama later honoured Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and they marched hand in hand in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday attack.

Lewis also worked for 15 years to gain approval for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Humble and unfailingly friendly, Lewis was revered on Capitol Hill — but as one of the most liberal members of Congress, he often lost policy battles, from his effort to stop the Iraq War to his defence of young immigrants.

Read more:
Donald Trump unleashes Twitter attack on civil rights legend John Lewis

He met bipartisan success in Congress in 2006 when he led efforts to renew the Voting Rights Act, but the Supreme Court later invalidated much of the law, and it became once again what it was in his youth, a work in progress.

Story continues below advertisement

Later, when the presidency of Donald Trump challenged his civil rights legacy, Lewis made no effort to hide his pain.

Lewis refused to attend Trump’s inauguration, saying he didn’t consider him a “legitimate president” because Russians had conspired to get him elected. When Trump later complained about immigrants from “s—hole countries,” Lewis declared, “I think he is a racist … we have to try to stand up and speak up and not try to sweep it under the rug.”






US Congressman John Lewis says Trump not ‘legitimate president’


US Congressman John Lewis says Trump not ‘legitimate president’

Lewis said he’d been arrested 40 times in the 1960s, five more as a congressman. At 78, he told a rally he’d do it again to help reunite immigrant families separated by the Trump administration.

“There cannot be any peace in America until these young children are returned to their parents and set all of our people free,” Lewis said in June, recalling the “good trouble” he got into protesting segregation as a young man.

Story continues below advertisement

“If we fail to do it, history will not be kind to us,” he shouted. “I will go to the border. I’ll get arrested again. If necessary, I’m prepared to go to jail.”






Former Civil Rights leader admits he cried listening to tapes of families being separated at US border


Former Civil Rights leader admits he cried listening to tapes of families being separated at US border

In a speech the day of the House impeachment vote of Trump, Lewis explained the importance of that vote.

“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something. Our children and their children will ask us `what did you do? what did you say?” While the vote would be hard for some, he said: “We have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”

Lewis’ wife of four decades, Lillian Miles, died in 2012. They had one son, John Miles Lewis.

—With files from the Associated Press

Story continues below advertisement




© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.