John Lewis, the civil rights icon who became a prominent name during the Civil Rights Movement and became a political giant in Georgia, passed away on Friday night (July 17). He was 80 years old.
Lewis, the son of Alabama sharecroppers, had been battling Stage IV pancreatic cancer and had been receiving hospice care at his home.
“It is with inconsolable grief and enduring sadness that we announce the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis,” his family said in a statement. “He was honored and respected as the conscience of the US Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother. He was a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the divinity and worth of every human being. He dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America. He will be deeply missed.”
He served in Congress for more than three decades, taking the causes he initially marched and was jailed for as a Freedom Rider in the 1960s and making them loudly known in the halls of the country’s most notable governing body. Lewis challenged racial discrimination, segregation and injustice in the Deep South – issues that are still being fought as America reckons once more and the Black Lives Matter movement is in full swing.
Jailed numerous times in the 1960s, Lewis helped organize the 1963 March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King Jr. His political career began as a community activist and member of the Atlanta City Council before he was elevated to serve in Congress in 1986. Lewis would go on to become a best-selling author, was elected to his 17th consecutive term in Congress in 2018 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011.
He had been known as the “Conscious of Congress.”
“It’s why all these years later, he is known as the Conscience of the United States Congress, still speaking his mind on issues of justice and equality,” Obama said of Lewis at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony. ” And generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind — an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”
A documentary on Lewis’ life, Good Trouble was released in 2020.
Famously, Lewis was part of the marchers who organized the voting-rights march in Alabama in March 1965 that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” State troopers descended on the marchers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, attacking them as television cameras rolled. The incident helped the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Lewis suffered a fractured skull in the demonstration.
He was the last surviving member of the Big Six of civil rights organizers in the 1960s including King, James Farmer, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young.
“My greatest fear is that one day we may wake up and our democracy is gone,” Lewis said in Good Trouble.