Shomporko Desk:-ATLANTA – John Lewis, a lion of the civil rights movement whose bloody beating by Alabama state troopers in 1965 excited restriction to racial segregation, and who went on to a long and praised profession in Congress, died. He was 80.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed Lewis’ passing late Friday night, calling him “one of the best legends of American history.”
“All of us were humbled to call Congressman Lewis a colleague, and are heartbroken by his passing,” Pelosi said. “May his memory be an inspiration that moves us all to, in the face of injustice, make `good trouble, necessary trouble.”‘
The condolences for Lewis were bipartisan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Lewis was “a pioneering civil rights leader who put his life on the line to fight racism, promote equal rights, and bring our nation into greater alignment with its founding principles.
Lewis’s announcement in late December 2019 that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer — “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said — inspired tributes from both sides of the aisle and an unstated accord that the likely passing of this Atlanta Democrat would represent the end of an era.
The announcement of his death came just hours after the passing of the Rev. C.T. Vivian, another civil rights leader who died early Friday at 95.
Lewis was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, a group led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that had the greatest impact on the movement. He was best known for leading some 600 protesters in the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
At age 25 — walking at the head of the march with his hands tucked in the pockets of his tan overcoat — Lewis was knocked to the ground and beaten by police. His skull was fractured, and nationally televised images of the brutality forced the country’s attention on racial oppression in the South.
Within days, King led more marches in the state, and President Lyndon Johnson soon was pressing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. The bill became law later that year, removing barriers that had barred Blacks from voting.
“He loved this country so much that he risked his life and its blood so that it might live up to its promise,” President Barack Obama said after Lewis’ death. “Early on, he embraced the principles of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience as the means to bring about real change in this country.”
Lewis joined King and four other civil rights leaders in organizing the 1963 March on Washington. He spoke to the vast crowd just before King delivered his epochal “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940, outside the town of Troy, in Pike County, Alabama. He grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools.
Lewis turned to politics in 1981 when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council.
He won his seat in Congress in 1986 and spent much of his career in the minority. After Democrats won control of the House in 2006, Lewis became his party’s senior deputy whip, a behind-the-scenes leadership post in which he helped keep the party unified.
Lewis said he’d been arrested 40 times in the 1960s, five more as a congressman. At 78, he told a rally he’d do it again to help reunite immigrant families separated by the Trump administration.
“There cannot be any peace in America until these young children are returned to their parents and set all of our people free,” Lewis said in June, recalling the “good trouble” he got into protesting segregation as a young man.
“If we fail to do it, history will not be kind to us,” he shouted. “I will go to the border. I’ll get arrested again. If necessary, I’m prepared to go to jail.”
In a speech on the day of the House impeachment vote of Trump, Lewis explained the importance of that vote.
“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something. Our children and their children will ask us `what did you do? what did you say?” While the vote would be hard for some, he said: “We have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”
Lewis’ wife of four decades, Lillian Miles, died in 2012. They had one son, John Miles Lewis.
Photo credit: JOSE LUIS MAGANA / AP News source: The Associated Press