US civil rights pioneer and congressman John Lewis dies aged 80
Lewis’s personal history paralleled that of the civil rights movement from Selma to George Floyd
John Lewis, the non-violent civil rights campaigner who marched with Martin Luther King Jr and nearly died from police beatings before serving for decades as a US congressman, has died at age 80. File photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
John Lewis, a pioneer of the civil rights movement and long-time member of the US House of Representatives, died on Friday aged 80.
Lewis, a Democratic member of Congress from Atlanta who had announced in December that he had advanced pancreatic cancer. “He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise,” former US president Barack Obama said in a statement. “And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.”
Former US president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in a joint statement, “We have lost a giant. John Lewis gave all he had to redeem America’s unmet promise of equality and justice for all, and to create a place for us to build a more perfect union together.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Lewis “a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation.”
On the front lines of the bloody campaign to end Jim Crow laws, with blows to his body and a fractured skull to prove it, Lewis, a sharecroppers son was a valiant stalwart of the civil rights movement and the last surviving speaker at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
More than a half-century later, after the killing in May of George Floyd, a black man in police custody in Minneapolis, Lewis welcomed the resulting global demonstrations against police killings of black people and, more broadly, against systemic racism in many corners of society. He saw those protests as a continuation of his life’s work, although his illness had left him to watch from the sidelines.
“It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets, to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble,’” Lewis told “CBS This Morning” in June.
“This feels and looks so different,” he said of the Black Lives Matter movement, which drove the anti-racism demonstrations. “It is so much more massive and all inclusive.” He added, “There will be no turning back.” He died on the same day as another stalwart of the civil rights movement, the Reverend CT Vivian, a close associate of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jnr.
Lewis’s personal history paralleled that of the civil rights movement. He was among the original 13 Freedom Riders, the black and white activists who challenged segregated interstate travel in the South in 1961. He was a founder and early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which co-ordinated lunch-counter sit-ins. He helped organise the March on Washington, where King was the main speaker, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Lewis led demonstrations against racially segregated restrooms, hotels, restaurants, public parks and swimming pools, and he rose up against other indignities of second-class citizenship. At nearly every turn, he was beaten, spat upon or burned with cigarettes. He was tormented by white mobs and absorbed body blows from law enforcement.
On March 7th, 1965, he led one of the most famous marches in American history. In the vanguard of 600 people demanding the voting rights they had been denied, Lewis marched partway across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, into a waiting phalanx of state troopers in riot gear.
Ordered to disperse, the protesters silently stood their ground. The troopers responded with tear gas and bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. In the melee, known as Bloody Sunday, a trooper cracked Lewis’s skull with a billy club, knocking him to the ground, then hit him again when he tried to get up.
Televised images of the beatings of Lewis and scores of others outraged the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act, which president Lyndon B. Johnson presented to a joint session of Congress eight days later and signed into law August 6th. A milestone in the struggle for civil rights, the law struck down the literacy tests that black people had been compelled to take before they could register to vote and replaced segregationist voting registrars with federal registrars to ensure that they were no longer denied the ballot.
Once registered, millions of African-Americans began transforming politics across the South. They gave Jimmy Carter, a son of Georgia, his margin of victory in the 1976 presidential election. And their voting power opened the door for black people, including Lewis, to run for public office. Elected in 1986, he became the second African American in Congress from Georgia since Reconstruction.
While Lewis represented Atlanta, his natural constituency was disadvantaged people everywhere. Known less for sponsoring major legislation than for his relentless pursuit of justice, his colleagues called him “the conscience of the Congress.”
John Robert Lewis was born February 21st, 1940, to Eddie and Willie Mae (Carter) Lewis near the town of Troy on a sharecropping farm owned by a white man. After his parents bought their own farm, 110 acres for $300, John, the third of 10 children, shared in the farm work, leaving school at harvest time to pick cotton, peanuts and corn.
In 1998 he married Lillian Miles, a librarian, teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer. She died in 2012. Lewis’ survivors include several siblings and his son, John-Miles Lewis. –New York Times and Reuters