Rep. John Lewis, an iconic pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Rider who literally shed his blood in the fight for Black voting rights and went on to become a 17-term Democratic member of Congress, died yesterday from pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old.
One of the last surviving leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights era and members of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle, (the Rev. C.T. Vivian passed yesterday as well), Lewis was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer in December.
Regardless of his health issues, Lewis took to the streets again in early June to join protests for racial justice near the White House that were in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, among others.
Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama and attended segregated schools before earning his college degree at Fisk University in Nashville.
While a student there, Lewis organized his first sit-in demonstration at a lunch counter and was soon arrested for what he started to call “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
To quote from the Los Angeles Times:
By 1961, Lewis was volunteering for the Freedom Rides, challenging segregation by sitting among white people on buses in Southern cities, not in the rear sections designated for “colored” people.
On May 9, 1961, as his bus stopped at a Greyhound station in Rock Hill, S.C., he and his companions were beaten by Elwin Wilson, a white man Lewis didn’t officially meet until nearly 50 years later. Wilson visited Lewis’ congressional office in 2009 to formally apologize.
“It demonstrated the power of nonviolence, the power of love, the power of the way of peace, to be reconciled,” Lewis said.
By the time he was just 23, Lewis was known as one of the “Big Six” national student leaders in the civil rights movement. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized student activism including sit-ins, voter registration drives and the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a 1964 project to register Black voters in the state. The role at SNCC brought him to Atlanta, a city that he would call home for the rest of his life.
As a 25-year-old man, Lewis helped to plan the peaceful 1965 protest march from Selma to Montgomery that was one of the seminal moments of the civil rights movement.
The clash between protesters and the Alabama state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, called “Bloody Sunday,” spurred protests in 80 American cities and Congress’ passage of the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law five months later.
The protesters “literally, in my estimation, wrote the Voting Rights Act with our blood and with our feet on the streets of Selma, Alabama,” Lewis said in a 1985 interview for the documentary “Eyes on the Prize.”
It wasn’t the first nor the last time Lewis would be beaten. He often said he was arrested or jailed 40 times throughout the 1960s.
As the civil rights movement expanded to other minority groups, Lewis early on joined the battle to extend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Legislation called the Equality Act faced skepticism from some civil rights groups concerned about the unintended consequences of reopening the 1965 landmark law, fearful that they could lose some of its federal protections in the process.
“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Why do you take such a strong stand for gay rights, for marriage equality?’” Lewis said at a 2014 Human Rights Campaign event. “My simple answer is I fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up for discrimination today based on sexual orientation.”
Lewis’ political career began in 1981, when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. Five years later, he was elected to Congress, to a seat he has held since then.
While serving in the House of Representatives, Lewis became a leader and inspirational figure among his fellow Democrats. On major legislation, he often gave a closing speech that roused his party faithful. In the wake of the shooting massacre at the gay nightclub the Pulse, in Orlando, Fla., in 2016, he led a “sit in” on the House floor to protest Republicans’ refusal to act on gun-safety legislation.
During his first decade and a half in Congress, Lewis consistently introduced a bill to create a national African American history museum. His proposed legislation was repeatedly blocked by Sen. Jesse Helms, a segregationist and Republican from North Carolina.
Helms retired in 2003 and that year Lewis finally was able to get his bill passed and President George W. Bush signed it into law. The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on the National Mall in 2016.
In 2011, President Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Lewis’s survivors include several siblings and his son, John-Miles Lewis.
Read more: https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-07-17/rep-john-lewis-civil-rights-icon-dies
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