John Lewis, civil rights icon and congressman, dies at 80

John Lewis
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus wait to enter as a group to attend the memorial services of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., at the U.S. Capitol October 24, 2019, in Washington, D.C. |

Activists and politicians are paying tribute to civil rights icon John Lewis, the late Democratic congressman from Georgia, who died Friday at the age of 80. He had announced last year he had advanced pancreatic cancer.

“Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history: Congressman John Lewis, the Conscience of the Congress,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Friday.

Calling him “a titan of the civil rights movement,” Pelosi added that Lewis’ “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.”

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said its members were “deeply saddened by the passing of John Lewis.”

“His life-long mission for justice, equality and freedom left a permanent impression on our nation and world,” the NAACP wrote in a statement, extending its “sincerest condolences to his family, and we send prayers of comfort and strength to all.”

Lewis was the youngest and last surviving member of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr. and which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

He was also a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and its chairman from 1963 to 1966.

Lewis also helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. And he survived police brutality during the march in Selma, Alabama. 

“John Lewis was an American treasure,” Martin Luther King III wrote in a tweet. “He gave a voice to the voiceless, and he reminded each of us that the most powerful nonviolent tool is the vote. Our hearts feel empty without our friend, but we find comfort knowing that he is free at last.”

Stacey Abrams, a former gubernatorial candidate from Georgia and a Democrat, wrote on Twitter: “God has welcomed @repjohnlewis home. Defender of justice. Champion of right. Our conscience, he was a griot of this modern age, one who saw its hatred but fought ever towards the light. And never once did he begrudge sharing its beauty. I loved him & will miss him.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed tweeted: “Thank you for it all, Congressman John Lewis. You will be remembered beyond all of the tomorrows. Another one of our Great Men has left us. God's covering to you and your loved ones.”

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany praised the late congressman Saturday morning, saying in a statement on Twitter: “Rep. John Lewis was an icon of the civil rights movement, and he leaves an enduring legacy that will never be forgotten. We hold his family in our prayers, as we remember Rep. John Lewis’ incredible contributions to our country.”  

In December, while announcing he had been diagnosed with cancer, Lewis said, “I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

“While I am clear-eyed about the prognosis, doctors have told me that recent medical advances have made this type of cancer treatable in many cases, that treatment options are no longer as debilitating as they once were, and that I have a fighting chance,” Lewis added at the time, vowing to continue in office as a congressman in Georgia.

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