A Legend is Lost: Civil Rights Icon and Longtime Georgia Congressman John Lewis Dies at Age 80

By Al Perrotta Published on July 18, 2020

America lost one of its giants last night. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil rights movement, has died at the age of 80. He had been battling pancreatic cancer.

Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders, and led the historic “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma in 1965. During that march for black voting rights, a baton-wielding white officer fractured his skull. During one stop in Alabama as a Freedom Rider, Ku Klux Klan members deflated the tires of his bus and set it on fire.

“It was a very dangerous time,” he would later tell CNN, “I thought I was going to die.”

Born a sharecropper’s son in the segregated south, Lewis was a teenager when he heard and was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Gospel-driven call for non-violent protest to achieve equality. A far cry from what you are seeing on the streets today. He immediately joined the battle against segregation. In 1963, he would join Dr. King at the nation-changing March on Washington, serving as the event’s youngest keynote speaker. 

He would go on to be elected to Congress in 1987, serving as a Georgia representative for 33 years. He never stopped his life’s work: what he called “the good trouble.”

Tributes Pour In for Rep. Lewis

Our nation’s first black president, Barack Obama led the international outpouring of tributes to Lewis. “When I was elected a U.S. Senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders,” Obama wrote on Medium. “When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made.”

“We have lost a giant,” said former President and First Lady Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Despite being a fierce partisan — for example, he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of President Trump’s election or even to share a stage with him at the dedication of the Mississippi Museum of Civil Rights — Lewis was a beloved figure on both sides of the aisle.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised his “gentle, respectful and friendly” manner.  “I will never forget holding hands with John as members of Congress sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ at a 2008 tribute to his friend Dr. Martin Luther King. It could not have been more humbling considering what he suffered and sacrificed so those words could be sung in that place.

“Our nation has only bent toward justice because great men like John Lewis took it upon themselves to help bend it.”

Republican Senator Tim Scott, one of the few African-Americans in the U.S. Senate, remembered Lewis’s “open arms” when he arrived on Capital Hill. Sen. Scott went on to say, “He was a giant among men; his life and legacy will continue to serve as an example for the generations to come. I am encouraged by his courage, determination, and perseverance, characteristics that we can all try to emulate — especially in the wake of current events.”

Fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter wrote: “John never shied away from what he called ‘good trouble’ to lead our nation on the path toward human and civil rights. Everything he did, he did in a spirit of love.”

A Hero’s Farewell

In 2011, Rep. John Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Although as of Saturday morning, funeral arrangements have not been announced, it can be expected the nation will pay full and fitting tribute as Lewis makes that last ride to eternal freedom. 

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