John Lewis, civil rights hero and ‘conscience of Congress,’ dies at 80

Georgia Democrat was a lifelong champion of equality and voting rights

Georgia Rep. John Lewis stands near a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Capitol Rotunda on Oct. 24, 2019, before a memorial service for the late Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Georgia Rep. John Lewis stands near a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Capitol Rotunda on Oct. 24, 2019, before a memorial service for the late Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 18, 2020 at 12:15am

John Lewis, a civil rights icon who went on to a career of more than three decades in Congress as a Democrat representing Atlanta, died Friday night. He was 80 years old and was in treatment for pancreatic cancer.

He enjoyed near-universal respect on Capitol Hill as a hero of the movement that put in him the national spotlight at a young age. As a lawmaker, he was willing to wield that clout and made his arguments in the stark moral tones of the civil rights era, championing federal programs that advanced his notions of economic and social justice and earning him the moniker, the “conscience of Congress.”

Lewis burst on to the national spotlight as a civil rights leader in the 1960s. He organized sit-ins, boycotts and other nonviolent protests in the segregated South and was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders seeking to integrate interstate bus travel.

He helped form, and for several years led, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, a youth-driven fulcrum of the civil rights movement that focused on civil disobedience.

Lewis often referenced what his parents and grandparents told him — “Don’t get in trouble” — as he grew up in rural Alabama.
But his connection with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders inspired a different mantra that he embodied fully throughout his life: good trouble. “Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble,” Lewis would say.

He was named chairman of SNCC in 1963, with 24 arrests under his belt and more than a dozen to come. At the time of his death, Lewis was the last surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the site of King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Georgia Democrat is largely remembered for his actions during “Bloody Sunday,” when state and local police in Alabama attacked peaceful civil rights protesters seeking voting rights for Black people who were crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965 on their way to the state Capitol at Montgomery.

Lewis was badly injured, having had his skull bashed in, and the outrage sparked by images of the event inspired enactment of the landmark Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965.

Lewis stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in between television interviews on Feb. 14, 2015. He was beaten by police on the bridge on “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, during an attempted march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

‘Real life superhero’

Lewis in recent years also achieved pop culture status with the publication of a best-selling, three-part autobiographical graphic novel, “March.”

In 2013, he attended Comic-Con in San Diego to promote the first “March” book, and drew enthusiastic crowds usually accustomed to turning out for actors in the latest “Star Wars” or “Avengers” movies.

Exuberant fans — some, like Lewis, who make it their mission to topple barriers to racial equality, others so young they weren’t alive when there wasn’t a Black president — turned out en masse to welcome Lewis to the campy fantasy fest.

“This is a real-life superhero,” one mother explained to her son, who peeked over the stacked books on his tiptoes to look at Lewis.

[John Lewis receives a hero’s welcome at Comic-Con]

Alongside people decked out in capes, masks and tights, Lewis got into the Comic-Con spirit and cosplayed as himself. He wore a trench coat and backpack, just like he did at age 25 as he led marchers across the bridge in Selma.

The “March” series was co-authored by longtime Lewis staffer Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. Lewis was aware of the power a comic book could have. As a young man, he got his hands on the 1958 comic book “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” which, he said, with its lesson of nonviolent protest, inspired many student activists.

“It was about the way of love,” Lewis told The Washington Post in 2013. “We were beaten and arrested … and that comic book inspired me to make trouble. But it was the good kind of trouble.”

A panel is pictured in 2013 from Lewis’ book “March: Book One,” co-authored with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The most recent chronicle of Lewis’ life and legacy was the release this month of the feature-length documentary, “John Lewis: Good Trouble.” In the film, which features him watching footage of his civil rights activism with filmmaker Dawn Porter, Lewis opened up to tell stories seldom heard, a feat for a well-documented public figure.

[A good time for a film about ‘Good Trouble’]

Having served in Congress for 33-plus years, Lewis pushed for 15 years to create the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also helped create the FBI’s Cold Case Initiative, which reopens cases of racially motivated murders from past decades.

Shedding blood for right to vote

Lewis’ Washington office in the Cannon Building was filled with memorabilia of the civil rights movement and memories from his long career: photos of Lewis with King and other civil rights leaders in the Oval Office with President John F. Kennedy; a campaign poster of Robert F. Kennedy; and a photo of King speaking at the Lincoln Memorial.

“HANDS THAT PICK COTTON NOW CAN PICK OUR PUBLIC OFFICIALS,” read a voter registration poster that bordered on autobiographical as it hung on the wall in the congressional office of the son of sharecroppers. Also on the wall was a March 1965 LIFE magazine cover, “Civil Rights Standoff in Selma: The Savage Season Begins,” showing Lewis and Hosea Williams leading marchers, just before they were beaten.

And echoing his work in the civil rights movement, Lewis also led the fight to renew provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the 116th Congress, he spoke in support of a measure to reconfigure the formula in the law that’s used to determine if states are committing voting rights violations.

The Supreme Court had ruled the previous formula unconstitutional in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision.

“The only thing I did or tried to do … is to get the right to vote. We gave a little blood on that bridge to help redeem the soul of America,” Lewis said prior to the bill’s passage in the House in December 2019. “So our struggle is an ongoing struggle. We can never give up. We can never lose hope. We’re gonna pass it here.”

Lewis speaks in the Capitol on Dec. 6, 2019, during a news conference on a measure to restore key parts of the Voting Rights Act. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lewis was often referred to, by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others, as the “conscience of the Congress,” a moniker also used to describe the Congressional Black Caucus as a whole.

He remained committed to civil disobedience and getting in “good trouble” his entire life. A tweet of his arrest picture in 1961, when he landed in the notorious Parchman Farm penitentiary in Mississippi for trying to use a whites-only restroom as a Freedom Rider, went viral every year, a sign of his cross-generational influence.

He was arrested five times as a congressman, including two arrests at the South African Embassy in Washington to protest apartheid. He was also arrested in 2006 and 2009 for blocking the Sudanese Embassy over genocide in that country’s Darfur region. His most recent arrest was at an immigration protest on the National Mall in Washington in 2013.

Lewis and other House Democrats are arrested by Secret Service officers in April 2009 during a protest outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington against the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Lewis approached gun violence with the same spirit of protest. In June 2016, after a mass shooting at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killed 49 people, he and Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Katherine M. Clark led a dramatic House sit-in with their Democratic colleagues to force a vote on gun safety legislation.

“Now is the time to get in the way. The time to act is now. We will be silent no more. The time for silence is over,” he said on the floor in the lead-up to the protest.

At least 170 lawmakers participated in the sit-in, sprawling on the floor of the House and broadcasting speeches using their phones to livestream the protest after the cameras in the chamber were shut off. Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who called the effort a publicity stunt, chose not to have the lawmakers forcibly removed or arrested. Ultimately, the vote they called for on gun legislation never happened.

Lewis along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats sing “We Shall Overcome” with demonstrators on the East Front of the Capitol on June 23, 2016, after the lawmakers ended their floor sit-in to push for votes on gun safety legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

[Key moments in the House sit-in on guns]

Personifying courage

In 2001, Lewis was given the Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement by the John F. Kenny Library in honor of his leadership during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential 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,” Obama said during the ceremony in the East Room.

On Dec. 29, 2019, Lewis announced that he was undergoing treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer and that he would continue to serve in spite of health issues.

“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 in a statement. “I may miss a few votes during this period, but with God’s grace I will be back on the front lines soon.”

His House colleagues gave him a surprise worthy of his 80 years in early March, gathering with cake and song to celebrate his late February birthday. Videos posted by Clark and Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., showed the octogenarian’s appreciation, covering his heart with his hands after dozens of lawmakers shouted “Surprise!”

“I feel more than lucky, I feel honored and blessed,” he said, after thanking them for their calls and prayers as he received cancer treatments.

His illness did not keep him from speaking up about the recent nationwide protests of police violence against Black citizens, an issue he was intimately familiar with from the beatings he endured during the civil rights era.

“Despite real progress, I can’t help but think of young Emmett [Till] today as I watch video after video after video of unarmed Black Americans being killed, and falsely accused. My heart breaks for these men and women, their families, and the country that let them down — again,” Lewis said in a May 30 statement, after protests broke out after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.

“To the rioters here in Atlanta and across the country: I see you, and I hear you. I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long,” he added.

In June, Lewis joined District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser on the newly painted and renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza across from the White House to help lead marchers in the nation’s capital.

Crossing the aisle

For all his broader cultural influence, Lewis showed love and compassion on a more personal scale as well.

In a moving gesture just a month before he announced his own illness, Lewis gathered with Georgia’s congressional delegation in November 2019 to pay tribute to the state’s senior senator, Republican Johnny Isakson, who was retiring because of Parkinson’s disease and other ailments.

“You, senator, led a team that could cross the aisle without compromising your values,” Lewis said.

“I will come over to meet you, brother,” he said before walking toward the Republican side of the House chamber where Isakson was sitting.

Isakson, despite his health issues, rose from his seat to meet Lewis halfway. The two men embraced and spoke in each other’s ears before settling into seats together at the center of the chamber.

While his illness did keep Lewis from some House business earlier this year, he was among the lawmakers participating in the historic proxy voting on the House floor during the coronavirus pandemic. Since May 27, Lewis has entrusted Michigan Democrat Dan Kildee with casting his votes via proxy.

Lewis pictured in August 1991. (Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sharecropper’s son to halls of Congress

One of 10 children of sharecroppers and born in Troy, Alabama, on Feb. 21, 1940, Lewis recalled being shy when attending segregated schools in rural Alabama.

He was inspired by King’s sermons on the radio and developed a sense of outrage at the 1955 lynching in Mississippi of Till, who was roughly the same age as Lewis. Later, as a student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, he attended workshops on nonviolent resistance.

Lewis first ran for Congress from Georgia in 1977, for the House seat Andrew Young vacated to become U.N. ambassador. He lost to fellow Democrat Wyche Fowler in a special election. He then went to Washington to head the federal volunteer agency ACTION under President Jimmy Carter.

Returning to Atlanta, he won a seat on the City Council in 1981. He made his next bid for the House in 1986, when Fowler ran for the Senate.

Lewis defeated state Sen. Julian Bond for the Democratic nomination, in a race that turned the longtime friends, allies and civil rights icons into bitter rivals. They had gained national recognition together as young men, with Lewis as chairman of SNCC and Bond as the communications director.

During the race, Lewis challenged Bond to take a drug test and took one himself to draw contrast with allegations of drug use by his opponent. Bond refused and framed the challenge as a move by Lewis to cater to white precincts, the exact demographics that propelled Lewis to victory.

Lewis married Lillian Miles in 1968 after meeting her at a New Year‘s Eve party. Lillian became Lewis’ closest adviser and encouraged him to extend his civil rights work into politics in the 1970s. Lewis and Lillian had one child, John-Miles Lewis.

They were married for 44 years until Lillian’s death on Dec. 31, 2012.

Lewis gives a constituent a tour of the Capitol in July 1993. (Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call file photo)