John Lewis was a leader in the civil rights movement that relied on peaceful nonviolent protests to bring an end to racial segregation and push for the demise of discrimination in this country. He was a foot soldier who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to stir the soul of America in the 1960s and enlist support from across the country.
This icon of civil rights survived numerous encounters with Jim Crow laws, fighting “for freedom, equality, basic human rights,” he once said. But on Monday he lost a fight unlike any he had ever faced he said. He died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80, having been diagnosed with the disease last December. A staunch Democrat, he represented the 5th Congressional District in Atlanta for 34 years, reflecting his popularity with the voters.
John Lewis joined the fight for civil rights when he was a youth, as did numerous other young people who marched with Dr. King across the South and into the North as well. Arrested numerous times, Lewis kept up the fight for justice at the risk of his life. In 1961, as one of the Freedom Riders seeking to integrate interstate buses, he was beaten badly and jailed.
In March 1965 during the now famous “Bloody Sunday” march by about 600 protesters across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Lewis was brutally beaten and suffered a fractured skull as Alabama state troopers wielded clubs to break up the march. Undeterred, the protesters gained the right to continue the 54-mile march to the Alabama capital as the Selma violence, shown on television, shocked the conscience of America and bolstered support for civil rights legislation by Congress. Later that year, the landmark Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Always on the front line in the fight for civil rights, Lewis was one of the organizers and a speaker at the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In recognition of Lewis’ contributions to civil rights, in 2011 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award for civilians, by President Barack Obama. The former president paid tribute to Lewis after his death. “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,” Obama said. At his 2009 inauguration, Obama said he told Lewis “I was only there because of the sacrifices he made.”
Tributes to Lewis came from other former presidents. George Bush said throughout his career Lewis “worked to make our country a more perfect union,” and Lewis’ memory can best be honored “by continuing his journey toward liberty and justice for all.” Former President Jimmy Carter said: “Everything he did, he did in a spirit of love. All Americans, regardless of race or religion, owe John Lewis a debt of gratitude.” Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Lewis the “conscience of the nation,” and said: “We have lost a giant. John Lewis gave all he had to redeem America’s unmet promise of equality and justice for all, and to create a place for us to build a more perfect union together.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said, “Our nation will never be the same without him. There are no words to adequately express the sadness that countless Americans are feeling upon learning this news. John Lewis changed our world in profound and immeasurable ways.” Georgia Sen. David Perdue said: “No one embodied the word ‘courage’ better than John Lewis. As a civil rights icon, John inspired millions of Americans to fight injustice and reject the status quo.” President Donald Trump ordered flags flown at half-staff at the White House, all public buildings and grounds, military posts and naval stations and naval vessels. On Twitter, Trump posted: “Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing,” and said he and Melania sent their prayers to Lewis and his family.
John Lewis was willing to risk his life for the good of our country. Returning to Selma in March to mark the 55th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” he gave this perspective: “On this bridge some of us gave a little blood to help redeem the soul of America. Our country is a better country. We are better people, but we have still a distance to travel to go before we get there.” Amen.