Civil Rights Leader Rep. John Lewis Dead at 80

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Currents News Staff

Civil rights activist and U.S. Representative John Lewis has died at the age of 80.

Lewis announced in December that he had stage four pancreatic cancer. Throughout his life he was a leader –  first as a civil rights activist and then as a long-time congressman. 

Throughout his life, John Lewis stood for people’s rights. Born on an Alabama cotton farm into a segregated America, he would not only live to see an African-American elected president, he would be a major part of making it happen.

“Tonight, tonight, we gather here in this magnificent stadium in Denver because we still have a dream,” Lewis said. “We still have a dream. “

Lewis growing up was angered by the unfairness of the Jim Crow south. He credited Martin Luther King Jr., for inspiring him to join the civil rights movement. Eventually Lewis would become one of its most prominent leaders.

As a student, he organized sit-ins at lunch counters. In the early 1960s, he was a freedom rider challenging segregation at interstate bus terminals across the south. He was the embodiment of non-violence and frequently suffered beatings by angry mobs.

Lewis, 23-years-old at the time, was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington when he said that “we do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now.”

Then two years later, he led a march for voting rights in Selma. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he and the other marchers were met by heavily armed state and local police. They were sat upon and beaten and Lewis suffered from a fractured skull. It would be forever remembered as “Bloody Sunday”.

The images of brutality shocked the nation, galvanizing support for the Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Lewis never lost his young activist spirit, taking it from protests to politics, standing up for what he believed was right and he was arrested more than 40 times by police, according to his congressional office.

“I’m on my way, and we’re going to win this race,” he said.

He was elected to city council in Atlanta, then to Congress in Washington, representing Georgia’s 5th district fighting against poverty and for healthcare while working to help younger generations by improving education.

He reached out to young people in other ways, co-writing a series of graphic novels about the civil rights movement, which won him a national book award.

In a life filled with so many moments and great achievements, it was the achievement of another, in 2008 that perhaps meant the most – the election of President Barack Obama – a dream Lewis admits was too impossible to consider decades before, even as he fought to forge its foundation.

“This is a unbelievable period in our history,” Lewis said. Martin Luther King Jr. would be very pleased to see what is happening in America. This is a long way from the March on Washington. It’’s a great distance from marching across the bridge on Selma in 1965 for the right to vote.”  

In 2011, after more than 50 years on the front lines of civil rights, Lewis received the nation’s highest civilian honor – the presidential medal of freedom, which was placed around his neck by America’s first Black president.

Lewis wasn’t content to just making history, he was also dedicated to preserving it. Consider the impetus for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

He never stopped stirring up “good trouble” as he liked to call it: boycotting the inauguration of George W. Bush after the contested 2000 election and vocally opposing Donald Trump in 2017 – citing suspicions of Russian election meddling.

At a protest against President Trump’s immigration policy, the congressman, by then an elder statesman of the Democratic party,  riled up the crowd by words he had lived by  as an activist, lawmaker and leader.

“We must never, ever give up,” Lewis said. “We must be brave, bold and courageous.”