Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), a civil rights icon, died at the age of 80 on Friday.
Lewis was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – which has a low survival rate – last year. He said he “never faced a fight quite like this one” when explaining his battle against the disease.
Before becoming a 17-term congressman in 1987, Lewis – the son of Alabama sharecroppers—was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. to join the fight against segregation and discrimination in the South.
Lewis, who was an original Freedom Rider and an organizer for the March on Washington in 1963, was arrested several times while non-violently protesting racial discrimination. In 1965, Lewis had his skull fractured by Alabama State Troopers while marching with 600 protestors in Selma, Alabama in what became known as “Bloody Sunday”, a turning point in the civil rights movement.
Politico details the event:
On this day in 1965, known in history as “Bloody Sunday,” some 600 people began a 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the state Capitol in Montgomery. They were commemorating the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who had been shot on Feb. 18 by a state trooper while trying to protect his mother during a civil rights demonstration.
After the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Selma’s outskirts, white state troopers assaulted them, knocking many to the ground and beating them with nightsticks. Another detachment of troopers fired tear gas while mounted troopers charged the marchers. In all, 17 marchers were hospitalized and 50 treated for lesser injuries.
From 1966 to 1977, Lewis worked as a community organizer in New York City and Atlanta mobilizing minority voters. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1977 before becoming an Atlanta City Councilmember in 1981.
In 1986, Lewis ran for and won a seat in Congress.
During his long tenure on Capitol Hill, Lewis was a leader on civil rights and a strong voice against sending US troops to war. He was one of the few members of Congress to oppose the 2003 US Invasion of Iraq. In 2002, he said it “will not bring peace to the Middle East. It will not make the world a safer, or better, or more loving place,” which unfortunately rang on deaf ears.
President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Lewis in 2010. When President Obama was inaugurated a year earlier, Lewis was the only living speaker from the March on Washington on stage. Obama signed a photograph for Lewis with the words, “Because of you, John.”
Lewis was predeceased by his wife Lillian Miles (m. 1968) in 2012. He is survived by one son, John-Miles.