John Lewis, congressman and civil rights icon, dies at 80
Lewis passed seven months after a routine medical visit revealed that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Congressional Black Caucus confirmed the news of his death.
Known as the "conscience of the U.S. Congress," Lewis continually represented Georgia's 5th Congressional District, which includes most of Atlanta, since taking office in 1987. His cancer diagnosis in December 2019 did not interrupt that streak.
"So I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community. We still have many bridges to cross," he said in a statement at the time.
"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, who was born on Feb. 21, 1940 to sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, attended segregated public schools and counted the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s radio broadcasts as inspiration for his work as an activist.
At 18, he wrote a letter to King, who responded by purchasing a round-trip bus ticket to Montgomery for Lewis so they could meet.
"Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis," he recalled saying to King. "And that was the beginning."
Lewis wasted no time organizing, quickly finding himself on the front lines of the civil rights movement.
As a student at Fisk University, he led numerous demonstrations in Nashville against racial segregation, including sit-ins at segregated lunch counters as part of the Nashville Sit-ins.
Starting in 1961, he took part in a series of demonstrations that became known as the Freedom Rides, in which he and other activists -- Black and white -- rode together in buses through the South to challenge the region's lack of enforcing a Supreme Court ruling that deemed segregated public bus rides unconstitutional. Upon stopping, the activists on these rides often were arrested or beaten, Lewis included.
In his second-to-last tweet, just 10 days ago, Lewis tweeted about the 59th anniversary of his release from jail after being arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, for using a white restroom during a Freedom Ride.
During a stop in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Lewis was attacked by two men who hit him in the face and kicked him in the ribs, according to Smithsonian Magazine. In an interview decades later, he said he was undeterred.
"We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back," he said.
He was the youngest person to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, an event he helped organize as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The rally, at which King famously delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, drew more than 200,000 attendees.