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Rep. John Lewis, civil rights freedom fighter who rose to Congress, dies at 80

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Rep. John Lewis, civil rights freedom fighter who rose to Congress, dies at 80

Rep. John Lewis is seen close to the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. within the Capitol Rotunda earlier than a memorial service for Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., Oct. 24, 2019.

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Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon, has died at age 80.

Lewis was the sharecroppers’ son who battled in opposition to segregation — getting his head bashed by an Alabama state trooper in Selma on “Bloody Sunday” 1965 — and later grew to become a 17-term congressman from Georgia.

Lewis moved his combat from the lunch counters, faculties, bus stations and streets of the South to the halls of Congress, the place he was the Democrats’ senior chief deputy whip and member of the highly effective Home Methods and Means Committee.

He waged his combat in opposition to Jim Crow segregation legal guidelines by advocating nonviolent change regardless of being bodily attacked and arrested quite a few instances. In Congress, he voted in opposition to the Gulf Conflict and the Iraq Conflict, led a sit-in on the Home flooring to demand gun management laws, pressed for improved well being look after the poor, tried to strengthen voting rights legal guidelines and fought a rearguard effort to guard welfare advantages from cuts.

“You might have been an ethical compass for the nation and a voice for freedom and democracy on the earth,” Margaret Renkl wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Occasions in January 2020.

Days earlier than she wrote that open letter to Lewis, the congressman introduced that docs had found he had stage four pancreatic most cancers.

“I’ve been in some form of combat — for freedom, equality, fundamental human rights — for practically my complete life. I’ve by no means confronted a combat fairly just like the one I’ve now,” he stated in an announcement on the time. “I’ve determined to do what I do know to do and do what I’ve at all times carried out: I’m going to combat it and hold preventing for the Beloved Group. We nonetheless have many bridges to cross. … With God’s grace I can be again on the entrance traces quickly. Please hold me in your prayers as I start this journey.”

Whereas battling most cancers, he ran for reelection to an 18th time period in Congress, and through the protests following the police killing of George Floyd, he visited a 2-block-long asphalt canvas on Washington’s 16th Road that claims “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in large yellow letters. 

‘It is very transferring. Very transferring. Spectacular,” he advised a neighborhood Fox TV reporter. “I believe the individuals in D.C. and across the nation are sending a mightily highly effective and robust message to the remainder of the world that we are going to get there.”

John Robert Lewis was born Feb. 21, 1940, to Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis in Pike County, Alabama. He grew up on the household’s cotton farm in Troy and attended all-Black public faculties.

As a boy, he dreamed of changing into a minister.

“With the assistance of my brothers and sisters and cousins, we might collect all of our chickens within the rooster yard, and I’d begin preaching to the chickens. They by no means fairly stated ‘Amen,'” he stated in a StoryCorps phase that aired on NPR.

At 15, he was impressed by Rosa Parks’ refusal in 1955 to sit down at the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in defiance of Jim Crow practices. After graduating highschool two years later, he wrote a letter to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the chief of the nascent civil rights motion accepted Lewis’ provide to assist in the wrestle. King despatched him a bus ticket to Montgomery and so they met there.

“I used to be so scared. I did not know what to say or what to do,” Lewis recalled on StoryCorps. “And Dr. King stated, ‘Are you the boy from Troy? And I stated, ‘Dr. King, I’m John Robert Lewis.’ I gave my complete identify. However he nonetheless referred to as me the ‘boy from Troy.'”

He acquired a B.A. in faith and philosophy from Fisk College and was a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, each in Nashville, Tennessee.

As a university scholar, he organized sit-ins in opposition to segregated lunch counters in Nashville, and in 1961 he joined the Freedom Rides in opposition to segregation at bus terminals throughout the South, in keeping with his congressional web site.

Rep. John Lewis views for the primary time photos of his 1963 arrest after main a nonviolent sit-in at Nashville’s segregated lunch counters. This picture, transformed to black and white, was taken after he was honored with the Nashville Public Library Literary Award on Nov. 19, 2016. (Photograph by Rick Diamond/One other Billionaire Information)

Rick Diamond | Getty Picture

Two years later, at age 23, he was the youngest speaker on the August 1963 March on Washington, the place King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“We march immediately for jobs and freedom, however now we have nothing to be happy with,” Lewis advised the ocean of 250,000 individuals on the Lincoln Memorial. “For lots of and hundreds of our brothers aren’t right here. For they’re receiving hunger wages, or no wages in any respect. Whereas we stand right here, there are sharecroppers within the Delta of Mississippi who’re out within the fields working for lower than $three a day, 12 hours a day. … We’re drained. We’re bored with being overwhelmed by policemen. We’re bored with seeing our individuals locked up in jail time and again. …

“We wish our freedom and we would like it now,” he continued. “We don’t wish to go to jail. However we’ll go to jail if that is the value we should pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace. I attraction to all of you to get into this nice revolution that’s sweeping this nation. Get in and keep within the streets of each metropolis, each village and hamlet of this nation till true freedom comes. … By the drive of our calls for, our dedication, and our numbers, we will splinter the segregated South right into a thousand items and put them collectively within the picture of God and democracy. We should say: ‘Get up America! Get up!’ For we can’t cease, and we won’t and can’t be affected person.”

Through the “Mississippi Burning” Freedom Summer time the subsequent yr, he organized voter registration drives and group motion applications.

Then because the 25-year-old head of the Pupil Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis helped lead some 600 individuals meaning to march 54 miles from Selma to the Alabama capital Montgomery to press for voting rights for African Individuals. Because the demonstrators marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers ordered them to disperse inside two minutes. In one other minute and 5 seconds, the 150 cops charged into the gang on foot and on horses, firing tear fuel and swinging bullwhips and golf equipment. The date, March 7, 1965, grew to become often called Bloody Sunday. Among the many 58 individuals handled for accidents was Lewis, who suffered a fractured cranium after a trooper hit him with a billy membership.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., second from the fitting, crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge commemorating the 55th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama, March 1, 2020.

Michael A. McCoy | Reuters

“I used to be hit within the head by a State Trooper,” Lewis recalled in a tweet 51 years later. “I assumed I noticed demise. I assumed I used to be going to die.”

He returned to the bridge for each commemoration of the assault, together with a shock look on March 1, 2020, regardless of being ailing. That march got here two days earlier than Alabama voted in one of many Tremendous Tuesday presidential contests. “We should hold the religion, hold our eyes on the prize. We should exit and vote like we by no means, ever voted earlier than,” Lewis exhorted the gang, his voice nonetheless as highly effective as his phrases.

 “All these a few years later, I do not recall how I made it again throughout the bridge to the church,” he recalled on “Oprah’s Grasp Class.” “I do recall being within the church. They requested me to say one thing to the viewers, and I stood up and stated one thing like ‘I do not perceive it how President Johnson can ship troops to Vietnam and can’t ship troops to Selma, Alabama, to guard individuals whose solely need is to register to vote.'”

5 months after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into regulation on Aug. 6, 1965, with Lewis and King amongst these on the signing ceremony. Lewis framed one of many pens Johnson used and hung it on a wall in his lounge.

After leaving SNCC in 1966, Lewis grew to become director of the Voter Training Venture, which helped four million individuals register to vote. Eleven years later, he misplaced a bid to succeed Andrew Younger to signify Georgia’s fifth Congressional District and was named by President Jimmy Carter to move a federal volunteer company, ACTION.

Lewis was elected to the Atlanta Metropolis Council in 1981 and to the U.S. Home in 1986. Two months earlier than that election, he gained a bitter combat within the Democratic major runoff in opposition to Julian Bond, who had been SNCC’s communications director when Lewis headed the group. Through the marketing campaign, Bond had been accused of utilizing cocaine. Lewis took a blood take a look at and challenged Bond to take action, however he refused, accusing Lewis of ”McCarthyism and demagoguery.”

In Congress, Lewis fought for liberal causes. He dissented in opposition to President Invoice Clinton’s tightening of guidelines for welfare advantages in 1996.

“How can any individual of religion, of conscience vote for a invoice that places 1,000,000 extra children into poverty? The place is the compassion, the place is the sense of decency, the place is the guts of this Congress?” Lewis requested through the debate. “What does it revenue an important nation to beat the world, solely to lose its soul?”

He opposed the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars. He boycotted the 2001 inauguration of President George W. Bush as a result of he did not imagine Bush had gained the disputed “hanging chad” election in opposition to Al Gore. He was arrested a number of instances at embassy protests, and the 2016 sit-in he led within the Home demanded motion on gun management after the Orlando, Florida, nightclub bloodbath.

“My philosophy may be very easy: Once you see one thing that isn’t proper, not honest, not simply, it’s a must to get up and simply say one thing, it’s a must to do one thing,” he stated on StoryCorps. “I bought into good hassle, mandatory hassle. Even immediately, I inform individuals, ‘We have to get in good hassle.'”

Via all of it, he stood by nonviolent options to the nation’s issues and maintained hope for a greater world.

“Rioting, looting, and burning is just not the best way,” he tweeted through the demonstrations days after Floyd’s demise. “Be constructive, not damaging.”

“In lately that appear to be so darkish, I believe the spirit of historical past remains to be main us and guiding us,” Lewis advised opinion author Renkl throughout a 2016 journey to Nashville. “Name it what you might, however I imagine that by some means, ultimately, good goes to prevail. And out of a few of the darkest hours, there can be dawn. There can be mild. And we’ll get there. You must imagine it. You must imagine in your guts that it is going to be OK.”

Lewis’ spouse of 44 years, Lillian Miles Lewis, died in 2012. Survivors embody their son, John-Miles Lewis.