John Lewis, Civil Rights Icon, Dies at 80 - Rolling Stone
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John Lewis, Civil Rights Icon, Dies at 80

Often called the “conscience” of Congress, he dedicated his life to activism and service

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Congressman John Lewis, 80, died of pancreatic cancer on Friday.

Wayne Lawrence for Rolling Stone.

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.

“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 U.S. 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.”

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, Alabama, 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 after 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.”

Obama continued, “In so many ways, John’s life was exceptional. But he never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country might do. He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, a longing to do what’s right, a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect. And it’s because he saw the best in all of us that he will continue, even in his passing, to serve as a beacon in that long journey towards a more perfect union.”

Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State 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.'”

NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement, “We are deeply saddened by the passing of John Lewis. He was the conscience of our nation. His life-long mission for justice, equality and freedom left a permanent impression on our nation and world. Congressman Lewis provided us with a blueprint to create change. He inspired us. He challenged us to be better, to find our common humanity, and to love each other. He always told us that if something isn’t right, isn’t just, we must stand up and do something about it. And most of all, he urged us to vote to protect our democracy. That is what we must continue to do, today and everyday moving forward. His fight — our fight — for freedom and justice is just beginning, and it is now up to us to continue this fight. Congressman Lewis’ voice and leadership will be truly missed.”

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.'”

In This Article: John Lewis

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