Throughout his long career in Congress, which began in 1987, John Robert Lewis served as a reminder of his country’s past and how far his country has come. Born in Troy, Alabama, in 1940, the son of sharecroppers, he died at age 80 on Friday a revered civil rights icon, the acknowledged conscience of Congress for more than 30 years.
His death comes just a few months after he revealed he’d been diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer, which he vowed to fight. “I have been in some kind of fight—for freedom, equality, basic human rights—for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said at the time. He is survived by his son, John Miles Lewis. His wife, Lillian Miles, died on New Year’s Eve 2012.
“All of us were humbled to call Congressman Lewis a colleague, and are heartbroken by his passing,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said late Friday. “May his memory be an inspiration that moves us all to, in the face of injustice, make ‘good trouble, necessary trouble.’”
Time magazine declared Lewis a living saint, and for more than five decades after he was savagely beaten in a civil rights protest trying to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge into Montgomery, Alabama, Rep. John Lewis’ public service and moral conviction upheld the magazine’s appellation.
“I never became bitter or hostile, and neither can you,” he said on the 50th anniversary of the March 7, 1965 march known as Bloody Sunday, when local police attacked demonstrators, spraying tear gas, unleashing dogs, and pummeling people with billy clubs. Lewis had his skull fractured. He was 25 years old.
“I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma... I almost died. Some of my best friends were murdered in Mississippi and other places,” he said at a rally in 2018 for Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams. “I’m not asking any of you to give any blood. I’m just asking you to go and vote like you never voted before.”
Voting rights was the central cause for Lewis throughout his life. The horrific nature of the assaults on peaceful protesters on that bloody March Sunday prompted President Lyndon Johnson to call a joint session of Congress the following week, on March 15, where he told lawmakers, “Our mission is at once the oldest and most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.” He closed his speech with, “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement, and later that year, on Aug. 6, he signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As chairman of SNCC from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was the youngest of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders who organized the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington, and that is most remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The other leaders were A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; James Farmer Jr., with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality); Whitney Young Jr., with the National Urban League; and Roy Wilkins, with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
Lewis, just 23 years old at the time, made his elders nervous that he would be too radical in his remarks and offend the Kennedy administration. According to a report by David Remnick in February 2009 in The New Yorker, Lewis was prepared to say, “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.”
Remnick writes, “He had to lose the bit about Sherman’s army, but the rest of the text, capped by its final warning—'We will not be patient!’—left no doubt about Lewis or about the audacious generation he represented.”
Some 45 years later, in January 2009, Lewis was the only one of the Big Six still living and attending the inauguration of the country’s first Black president, Barack Obama. At a luncheon following the swearing-in, Remnick writes that Lewis asked Obama to sign a commemorative photograph. The new president wrote, “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.”
In 2011, Obama presented Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2015, Obama and Lewis together led the 50th anniversary commemorative march from Selma to Montgomery, over the Alabama river on the Edmund Pettus bridge, with one of the original organizers, Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was then over 100 years old, in a wheelchair.
The bridge is now a National Historic Landmark, and attempts to change its name have failed. Remembering Edmund Pettus and what he stood for is part of the American story. He was a brigadier general in the Confederate army, a Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan, and a U.S. senator from Alabama from 1897 to 1907.
Lewis’ story begins in rural Pike County, Alabama, where he was the third of his parents’ 10 children and, at age 4, was in the fields picking cotton, gathering peanuts, and pulling corn. At age 5, he was looking after the family’s flock of five dozen chickens. In his 1998 memoir, Walking with the Wind, he says, “My first nonviolent protest was against my mother and father when they wanted to kill some chickens or trade ’em to the rolling store for flour or sugar. Sometimes I’d take an egg from one hen and give it to another. I was never able to save the $18.95 to buy the cheapest incubator in the Sears & Roebuck catalog.”
Reflecting back on his life in a 1990 interview with Atlanta magazine, the year he turned 50, Rep. Lewis spoke in words and images so compelling, they bear recounting decades later:
My father couldn’t afford a newspaper subscription. I’d walk half a mile to get my grandfather’s paper after he got done reading it. I kept up with what was going on, reading that paper and listening to that radio… We ordered everything from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. We called it ‘the Wish Book’… I was bused 18 miles to the Pike County Training School. Black schools were ‘training schools’; whites went to high schools. We had old broken-down buses, ragged books, a rundown building. White students had new buses, nice painted buildings with the grounds kept up… In Troy, they had a soda fountain where you could get Coca-Cola. We called it a combination. A black person could not take a seat. We had to stand at the end of the counter. ‘May I have a combination?’ You put your money down and went outside to the street corner to drink it… As a young child I saw a difference. I resented it. Even the country road where I grew up—because black people owned the land, the road was left unpaved for many, many years. When it rained, the bus got stuck in the mud. That was life in Alabama.
A way out to another life presented itself when his mother, the laundress at a white Baptist orphanage, showed him a newspaper article about work scholarships for Negro students being offered by the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville. Lewis was accepted in 1957, and at the seminary, and then at Fisk University, an historically Black college, he became a leader in the non-violent sit-ins that desegregated the lunch counters in downtown Nashville. He was arrested and jailed multiple times, and in 1961, he was one of the original 13 interracial “freedom riders,” seven Black and six white, chosen by CORE to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia that declared unconstitutional segregated interstate travel of rail and bus lines, including bus terminals.
Freedom riders traveled in pairs and the violence they encountered was both predictable and preventable. The worst of it was in Montgomery, Alabama, where a mob of some 2,000 people armed with lead pipes, baseball bats, and chains attacked the freedom riders and the press covering them. Among the seriously injured was John Seigenthaler, who had recently left the Nashville Tennessean to serve as an envoy from Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department. He was trying to convince the freedom riders to come with him and get away from the mob when a pipe hit him in the head. He was left lying in the street unconscious.
A wooden crate hit Lewis in the head and knocked him to the ground. “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die,” he told CNN on the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. As he lay semi-conscious at the Greyhound bus depot in Montgomery, Floyd Mann, the Alabama state patrol public safety director, stood over him and fired his gun up in the air two or three times saying, “There’ll be no killing here today! There’ll be no killing here today!”
In his autobiography, Walking With the Wind, Lewis recalls the moment, and writes that after he’d been elected to Congress, he went back to Montgomery for the dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial near Dr. King’s old church. Mann was there, “and he came up to me and said, “Congressman Lewis do you remember me?” And I said, “Yes, Mr. Mann, how can I forget you? You saved my life.”
After Stokely Carmichael was elected to chair SNCC and cries of “Black Power” challenged the non-violent approach embodied by Dr. King, Lewis left SNCC in 1966 and joined the Southern Regional Council (SRC) to work on voter registration. He and Julian Bond, who was elected to the Georgia legislature in 1965, traveled the South together registering Black voters. “John would do the churches and Julian would do the colleges,” recalls Page Crosland with the SRC’s Voter Education Project. They stayed in people’s houses because it saved money, but also because it was still hard at that time to find hotel lodging for Black people in the rural South.
The two men came from very different experiences. Bond’s father had gotten his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and Julian grew up surrounded by people of great accomplishment. It wasn’t until he was in high school at a private Quaker school in Pennsylvania that he felt the sting of racism.
They became good friends across a cultural divide, the princely Bond, born to do great things, and the sharecropper’s son, burning with ambition to rise above his birthright. And so it was a test for them, and for the citizens of the 5th District of Atlanta when they ran against each other in the Democratic primary in 1986. Bond led in the first round, carrying the district’s majority Black vote while Lewis, endorsed by the Atlanta newspapers, won the white vote. Neither reached 50 percent, forcing a runoff which Bond was expected to win.
In Atlanta magazine’s 1990 reflection on the race, author Vincent Coppola writes that “Time Magazine’s ‘Living Saint’ also showed that he could hit below the belt. When Bond challenged him in one debate on an alleged conflict involving campaign contributions (“If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, it must be a duck”), Lewis responded that Bond was ducking the drug-test issue. (Lewis still maintains he had not heard any rumors about Bond’s alleged cocaine use.) Thus began the ‘Jar Wars’ stage of the campaign. Bond refused to be tested.”
After Lewis won with 52 percent of the vote, the two men did not speak for almost three years, and they never fully restored their friendship. Bond told Coppola that whites cost him the election. “I had the reputation of being a race man… I think many white voters said, ‘If Bond gets into office, he’s only going to be worried about them and not about us. John Lewis will worry about us all. He’ll be worried about everyone.’ That was a correct analysis for them to have. They were right.”
And it was a good read on the kind of congressman Lewis would become, a man whose reputation as a healer broadened his appeal and leavened a voting record that was among the most liberal in Congress. The Associated Press said he was the first major House figure to call for the impeachment of George W. Bush over his authorization of wiretaps without warrants after the 9/11 attacks. “He is not king, he is president,” Lewis said. He had refused to attend Bush’s inauguration in January 2001, choosing to stay home in Atlanta, saying he didn’t believe Bush was the true president. Democrat Al Gore had won the national popular vote, and after a 36-day standoff over results too close to call in Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Bush’s favor, stopping the recount at a point when Bush led by just 537 votes out of many millions cast.
In 2008, the primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama tested Lewis’ loyalties. He initially backed Clinton, but he told The New York Times in mid-February after Obama had scored significant wins, that he might shift his vote as a superdelegate to Obama. “Something is happening in America and people are prepared and ready to make that great leap,” he said. He made it official on Feb. 27, giving a huge boost to Obama and deflating Clinton’s chances with a key constituency in the Democratic base.
After Obama secured the nomination, Lewis told Politico, “If someone had told me this would be happening now, I would have told them they were crazy, out of their mind, they didn't know what they were talking about... I just wish the others were around to see this day... To the people who were beaten, put in jail, were asked questions they could never answer to register to vote, it's amazing."
Four years later, after Obama won re-election, Lewis told TheGrio, “If you ask me whether the election… is the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, I say, ‘No, it’s just a down payment.’ There's still too many people 50 years later, there's still too many people that are being left out and left behind.”
As a member of Congress, Lewis proudly added to his already long rap sheet. He was arrested in 2006 and 2009 outside the Sudanese embassy to protest the genocide in Darfur. And he was arrested in 2013 along with seven other members of Congress from six states advocating for immigration reform near the west side of the U.S. Capitol building. In 2016, he led a sit-in in the House chamber to demand the Republican-led House allow votes on gun safety legislation in the aftermath of the June 12, 2016 Orlando night club shooting. Some 60 Democratic lawmakers participated, including then Rep. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who hid her phone inside one of her prosthetic legs so it would not be confiscated. She was able to stream what was happening inside the House chamber after the GOP shut down coverage. (Duckworth was elected to the Senate in November 2016.)
Nearly 26 hours after Lewis initiated the surprise sit-in, he was the last member to speak as lawmakers exited the chamber after their all-night vigil. After getting no assurances from the GOP leadership about any vote on gun violence, Lewis summoned up his customary resolve, “It is a struggle and we are going to win the struggle.”
When Donald Trump was sworn in as president in 2017, Lewis pointedly stayed away, saying as he had previously with George W. Bush, that Trump was not a truly elected president. He cited allegations of collusion with Russia that helped Trump win and that hurt Clinton.
Trump belittled Lewis in a tweet, saying he was all talk and no action, a statement so patently untrue it brought a torrent of criticism down on Trump. The president might want to check out the National Museum of African American History and Culture, not only for who’s in it, but who made it possible. Every year beginning in 1988, Rep. Lewis introduced a bill to create a museum dedicated to Black history. Conservative Senator Jesse Helms blocked the bill in the Senate until he retired in 2002. Lewis saw his opening, and in 2003, President George W. Bush signed legislation to establish the museum on the mall. It will endure as both a rebuke to America’s past and a tribute to the always optimistic future that Lewis embodied.