John Lewis, Champion of Justice, Civil Rights Icon and Congressman, Dies at 80

John Lewis, the son of sharecroppers who became a civil rights icon and long-serving congressman from Georgia, died on Friday. He was 80 years old.

John Robert Lewis was born on February 21, 1940 in Troy, Alabama to Eddie and Willie Mae Lewis. He was one of 10 children. He attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, where he met many of the future leaders of the civil rights movement.

Lewis’ death was confirmed by a senior Democratic official, The New York Times reported. His death came after the long-time congressman announced on December 29, 2019” that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Lewis had vowed to fight the evil disease with the same passion he fought for racial equality.

“I have been in some kind of fight—for freedom, equality, basic human rights—for nearly my entire life,” he said at the time.

Lewis began his life-long activism as a student leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1961, he became one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, who challenged the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South. In 1963, he was a key speaker at the March on Washington.

State troopers swing billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (in the foreground) is being beaten by a state trooper. Lewis, a future U.S. Congressman sustained a fractured skull. (AP Photo)

On March 7, 1965, Lewis joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and 600 other demonstrators as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to demand voting rights. They were met by violent state troopers clad in riot gear who responded with tear gas, bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. Lewis would have his skull cracked with a billy club.

The day would later be remembered as Bloody Sunday. Eight days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress and signed it into law on August 6.

On the 50th anniversary, Lewis walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge once again. This time, hand-in-hand with President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, and First Lady Michelle Obama.

President Barack Obama, center, walks as he holds hands with Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was beaten during "Bloody Sunday," as they and the first family and others including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga,, left of Obama, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. for the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday," a landmark event of the civil rights movement, Saturday, March 7, 2015. From front left are Marian Robinson, Sasha Obama. first lady Michelle Obama. Obama, Boynton and Adelaide Sanford, also in wheelchair. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Twenty years after he began his activism journey, Lewis ran for office and in 1986, he became the second African American elected to Congress from Georgia since Reconstruction. He’d been in office ever since.

In 2011, Obama awarded Lewis the Medal of Freedom. “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,” the president said.

President Barack Obama presents a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Throughout his life, Lewis remained a man of conscience. According to The New York Times, Lewis skipped the inaugurations of both Presidents George W. Bush in 2001 and Donald J. Trump in 2017, questioning the legitimacy of both of their presidencies.

In 2019, Lewis made an impassioned and wise speech when the House voted to impeach Trump that spoke to his convictions: “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?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”

Many were shocked and saddened by the news of Lewis’ passing.

“Farewell, sir. You did, indeed, fight the good fight and get into a lot of good trouble,” Bernice King tweeted. “You served God and humanity well. Thank you. Take your rest.”

“God has welcomed [John Lewis] home. Defender of justice. Champion of right. Our conscience, he was a griot of this modern age, one who saw its hatred but fought ever towards the light. And never once did he begrudge sharing its beauty. I loved him & will miss him,” wrote Stacey Abrams.

“John Lewis was a giant among men. A Civil Rights Icon, an indefatigable champion for justice, and a hell raiser known for making ‘good trouble.’ In mourning his passing, let us aspire to build a nation that Congressman Lewis believed it could be.” Julián Castro said of Lewis’ passing.

May Lewis rest in power.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.