Congressman John Lewis, a giant in the civil rights movement, died on Friday, following a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi confirmed Lewis’ death in a statement.
The son of Alabama sharecroppers and last living member of the “Big Six” group of civil rights organizers who led the March on Washington, Lewis dedicated his life to service and activism, including a 33-year career in Congress. At age 21, Lewis became one of the original Freedom Riders, beginning his lifelong fight for racial equity. While he was head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, state troopers beat Lewis and fractured his skull at the 1965 march on Selma, Ala., that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“Racism is the deeply embedded psyche of America,” Lewis told Rolling Stone in 2019. “We cannot escape it. We cannot hide it in some dark corner. Racism is one of the great sins of America. We grow up in a race-conscious society. Since African-Americans came here — or were brought here — racism has been part of our government. Every so often this deeply embedded sickness raises its ugly head in different forms and fashion. We try to sweep it under the rug, we try to sweep it into some dark corner. But we must continue to do what we can to bury it so that it never rises again. To wash it from the shores of America.”
“Farewell, sir,” Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., said of his death, “You did, indeed, fight the good fight and get into a lot of good trouble. You served God and humanity well. Thank you. Take your rest.”
In a statement, former president Barack Obama told a story about the last time he saw Lewis, at a forum with activists after the death of George Floyd. In a private conversation at the event, Obama said he told the congressman, “I told him that all those young people — of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — they were his children. They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it. They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they had heard of his courage only through history books.”
President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Clinton released a joint statement that read, in part, “We have lost a giant. John Lewis gave all he had to redeem America’s unmet promise of equality and justice for all, and to create a place for us to build a more perfect union together… We’ll always be grateful to God for his good life, and grateful that he lived to see a new generation of Americans take to the streets in search of his long-sought ‘beloved community.’”
Lewis did find hope in the recent Black Lives Matter protests happening across the country and was moved to tears. “This feels and looks so different. It is so much more massive and all-inclusive,” he told CBS in June, adding, “It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets — to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble.’”