Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis dead at 80

The mural of John Lewis in Downtown’s Sweet Auburn District (File)

Civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis has died at age 80 after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

Lewis served as the US representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for 36 years after a stint as an Atlanta City Council member.

Before becoming a lawmaker, the Democrat was already a revered member of the civil rights movement.  A friend and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis was an organizer and speaker at the 1963 March on Washington.

He participated in countless sit-ins, demonstrations, joined the Freedom Riders to end segregation on buses, and had his skull fractured by police during an infamous encounter on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama.

Lewis , a native of Troy, Alabama, was a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and later became its chairman, and also served as director of the Voter Education Project.

In Washington, he fought against poverty and made improving education and healthcare his top priorities among others. Lewis supported national health insurance, gay rights and was a loud critic of U.S. involvement in the Iraq War. He famously boycotted the inauguration ceremonies of George W. Bush and Donald Trump, claiming both had been unfairly elected. In 2016, he led a sit-in at the House of Representatives to protest inaction against gun laws after the Orlando nightclub shooting.

Often called the conscience of the U.S. Congress, Lewis was known for his quote about about making “good trouble” when a situation called for it. In a tweet in 2018 he said:  “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Freedom Parkway was renamed in honor of Lewis in 2018.

He also co-wrote a series of graphic novels about the civil rights movement, beginning with “March,” which won him a National Book Award.

President Barack Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, while Freedom Parkway in Downtown Atlanta was renamed in his honor in 2018.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms released this statement about the passing of Lewis:

“There are no words to describe the tremendous loss that Americans, Atlantans, and I personally feel upon learning of the passing of Congressman John Lewis,” said Mayor Bottoms. “America knew him as a Civil Rights Icon, Congressional Giant, and a moral compass, but I knew him as a friend. The people of Atlanta often called upon Congressman Lewis for counsel, guidance, and assistance with getting into good trouble. No matter how busy his schedule, or important his Washington duties were, he answered. We were privileged to be represented by a leader with both a pure heart and an unshakable commitment to human rights. As we persevere in the modern fight for social justice, we should honor his legacy by continuing to hold on to hope. I pray for his family, his constituents, and all who loved and were impacted by the life of Congressman John Lewis.”

Bottoms ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff immediately on all City of Atlanta facilities until further notice in honor of the late Congressman.

Lewis’ death came just one day after that of another civil rights leader and Atlanta resident, C.T. Vivian.

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