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Civil Rights icon John Lewis dead at 80

Walked beside Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lisa Fitch Editor-in-Chief | 7/24/2020, midnight
Rep. John Robert Lewis, (D-Ga.) the son of Alabama sharecroppers who survived a..

“My dear friends: Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.”

—John Lewis’ 2012 speech

in Charlotte, North Carolina

Rep. John Robert Lewis, (D-Ga.) the son of Alabama sharecroppers who survived a beating at the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Ala. to become a US congressman, died on Friday evening after a six-month battle with cancer. He was 80.

“He loved his country so much that he risked his own life and blood so that it might live up to its promise,” said Former President Barack Obama.

“It is with inconsolable grief and enduring sadness that we announce the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis,” his family said in a statement. “He was honored and respected as the conscience of the US Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother. He was a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being. He dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America. He will be deeply missed.”

Earlier this year, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Rev. Emmett G. Price III joined “Boston Public Radio” to look back on Lewis’ career, noting that he was grateful to Lewis for his tenacity in advocating for legislation that would eventually lead to the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“It took him 15 years to get that bill passed, and every year consistently he shared that bill, so that what we have now in this new national museum is actually a reflection of the resilience and dedication of Congressman John Lewis.”

On Dec. 29, 2019, the 17-term Lewis announced that he was receiving treatment for stage four pancreatic cancer.

Despite 45 arrests for his protests, Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence.

“I feel lucky and blessed that I’m serving in the Congress...but there is a force that is trying to take us back to another time and another dark period,” he said during the recently produced on-demand documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble.”

“My greatest fear is that one day we wake up and Democracy is gone,” he said.

The movie chronicles Lewis’ political life, which began when he was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lewis recalled segregation in his Troy, Ala. birthplace, including the local theatre, where Black children were escorted to the balcony, while White children were seated on the lower level. Later, he and his young relatives were turned away from the local library, which didn’t serve Blacks.

“I would come home and ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great grandparents, why?” Lewis said during the American Library Association’s 2013 Annual Conference in Chicago. “They’d say accept what is, don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble. But one day in 1955 at the age of 15, in the 10th grade, I heard about Rosa Parks, I heard the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio. And the action of Rosa Parks and the leadership and the words of Dr. King inspired me to find a way to get in the way. And I got in the way! And I got in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Lewis made a decision to become a part of the Civil Rights Movement and wrote King a letter after he finished high school.

“He sent me a round trip Greyhound bus ticket—invited me to come to Mongomerey to meet with him,” Lewis said during an interview on a 2018 “StoryCorps” podcast. “So in March of 1958, by this time I’m 18 years old, I boarded a Greyhound bus. I travelled the 50 miles from Troy to Montgomerey and a young lawyer by the name of Fred Gray, who had been the lawyer for Rosa Parks and Dr. King, met me at the Greyhound bus station and drove me to the First Baptist Church and ushered me into the office of the church.

“I was so scared,” Lewis said. “I didn’t know what to say or what to do. And Dr. King said, ‘Are you the boy from Troy?’ And I said, ‘Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis.’ I gave my whole name. But he still called me the ‘boy from Troy.’”

Lewis was arrested for the first time in Nashville, Tenn., after a lunch counter sit-in. Ironically, he once said that experience was not a deterrent.

“I felt free, liberated,” Lewis said. He went on to coordinate several other Civil Rights Movement events for the SNCC.

As a student at Fisk University, John Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at other segregated lunch counters. In 1961, he volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Lewis risked his life on those Rides many times by simply sitting in seats reserved for White patrons. He was also beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South.

During the height of the Movement, from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named Chairman of SNCC. By 1963, he was dubbed one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. The leaders of prominent civil rights organizations included King, James Farmer, Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young.

The six men were instrumental in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Lewis gave a rousing speech at the event, after King encouraged him to tone down some of his inflammatory language.

In March of 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams, another notable Civil Rights leader, led over 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers. The news broadcasts and photos revealing the cruelty of the segregated South helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“I thought I was going to die on the bridge,” Lewis said. He suffered a fractured skull.

“Good Trouble” documentary viewers learn the details of what happened before and after that iconic moment on the bridge and how Lewis never lost hope. They discover the intricate planning that went into his activism, from what to wear, how to present himself to how to withstand police violence.

After leaving SNCC in 1966, Lewis continued his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement as Associate Director of the Field Foundation and his participation in the Southern Regional Council’s voter registration programs. Lewis went on to become the Director of the Voter Education Project (VEP). Under his leadership, the VEP transformed the nation’s political climate by adding nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls.

During another interview, Lewis reminisced that he was extremely proud of the day he saw his parents cast their first votes.

In 1977, John Lewis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency.

In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. While serving on the Council, he was an advocate for ethics in government and neighborhood preservation. He was elected to Congress in November 1986 and had served as U.S. Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since then.

In 1998, “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement” the first book of Lewis’ three-part retelling, was published. That library in Troy, the same one that years earlier refused him a library card, asked him to come back for a book signing. He did. They gave him a library card.

Lewis was the recipient of numerous awards from eminent national and international institutions, including the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.

“Generations from now, when Americans teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind,” Obama said during the 2011 ceremonies.

Lewis’ dedication to the highest ethical standards and moral principles won him the admiration of many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle and he was often called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress.”

In his 2017 “Note to Self” broadcast on CBS This Morning, Lewis wrote the following words:

“I believe as Dr. King and A.Philip Randolph and others taught you—that we’re one people. And it doesn’t matter whether we’re White or Black, Latino, Asian American or Native American. That maybe our foremothers and forefathers all came here in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.

“John, you understood the words of Dr. King when you said we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters. If not, we will perish as fools.”