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Civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis dead at 80

By Suzanne Malveaux, Lauren Fox, Faith Karimi and Brandon Griggs, CNN | 7/18/2020, 10:45 a.m.
John Robert Lewis, the son of sharecroppers who survived a brutal beating by police during a landmark 1965 march in ...
John Robert Lewis, the son of sharecroppers who survived a brutal beating by police during a landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, to become a towering figure of the civil rights movement and a longtime US congressman, has died after a six-month battle with cancer. He was 80. Melina Marra/Pool/Getty Images

John Robert Lewis, the son of sharecroppers who survived a brutal beating by police during a landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, to become a towering figure of the civil rights movement and a longtime US congressman, has died after a six-month battle with cancer. He was 80.

"It is with inconsolable grief and enduring sadness that we announce the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis," his family said in a statement. "He was honored and respected as the conscience of the US Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother. He was a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being. He dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America. He will be deeply missed."

Lewis died on the same day as civil rights leader the Rev. Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian, who was 95. The dual deaths of the civil rights icons come as the nation is still grappling with racial upheaval in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the nation.

It's another heartbreak in a year filled with them, as America mourns the deaths of nearly 140,000 Americans from Covid-19 and struggles to bring the virus under control.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced his death in a statement.

"Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history: Congressman John Lewis, the Conscience of the Congress," the California Democrat said.

Lewis had vowed to fight the disease after announcing in late December 2019 that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, which was discovered as a result of a routine medical visit and subsequent testing.

"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 at the time.

Lewis, a Democrat who served as the US representative for Georgia's 5th Congressional District for more than three decades, was widely seen as a moral conscience of Congress because of his decades-long embodiment of nonviolent fight for civil rights. His passionate oratory was backed by a long record of action that included, by his count, more than 40 arrests while demonstrating against racial and social injustice.

A follower and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., he participated in lunch counter sit-ins, joined the Freedom Riders in challenging segregated buses and -- at the age of 23 -- was a keynote speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington.

"Sometimes when I look back and think about it, how did we do what we did? How did we succeed? We didn't have a website. We didn't have a cellular telephone," Lewis has said of the civil rights movement.

"But I felt when we were sitting in at those lunch counter stools, or going on the Freedom Ride, or marching from Selma to Montgomery, there was a power and a force. God Almighty was there with us."