John Lewis, towering figure of civil rights era, dies at 80

He was called the conscience of the Congress
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) speaks on voting rights outside the Capitol in Washington, June 25, 2019.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) speaks on voting rights outside the Capitol in Washington, June 25, 2019.

Rep. John Lewis, a son of sharecroppers and an apostle of nonviolence who was bloodied at Selma and across the Jim Crow South in the historic struggle for racial equality and who then carried a mantle of moral authority into Congress, died Friday. He was 80.

His death was confirmed by a senior Democratic official.

He announced on Dec. 29 that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and vowed to fight it with the same passion with which he had battled racial injustice. “I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life,” he said.

On the front lines of the bloody campaign to end Jim Crow laws, with blows to his body and a fractured skull to prove it, Lewis was a valiant stalwart of the civil rights movement and the last surviving speaker at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

More than a half-century later, after the killing in May of George Floyd, a Black man in police custody in Minneapolis, Lewis welcomed the resulting global demonstrations against systemic racism and the police killings of Black people. He saw those demonstrations, the largest protest movement in American history, as a continuation of his life’s work, although his illness had left him to watch from the sideline.

“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,’” Lewis told “CBS This Morning” in June.

“This feels and looks so different,” he said of the Black Lives Matter movement that drove the anti-racism demonstrations, which dwarfed the civil rights protests of the 1960s. “It is so much more massive and all inclusive.”

And this time, he said, “there will be no turning back.”

Lewis’ personal history paralleled that of the civil rights movement. He was among the original 13 Freedom Riders, the Black and white activists who challenged segregated interstate travel in the South in 1961. He was a founder and early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which coordinated lunch-counter sit-ins. He helped organize the March on Washington, where the main speaker on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lewis led demonstrations against racially segregated restrooms, hotels, restaurants, public parks and swimming pools, and he rose up against other indignities of second-class citizenship. At nearly every turn, he was beaten, spat upon or burned with cigarettes. He was tormented by shrieking white mobs and absorbed body blows from law enforcement.

On March 7, 1965, he led one of the most famous marches in American history. In the vanguard of 600 people demanding the voting rights they had been denied, Lewis marched partway across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, into a waiting phalanx of state troopers in riot gear.

Ordered to disperse, the protesters silently stood their ground. The troopers responded with tear gas and bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. In the melee, known as Bloody Sunday, a trooper cracked Lewis’ skull with a billy club, knocking him to the ground, then hit him again when he tried to get up.

Televised images of the beatings of Lewis and scores of others outraged the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson presented to a joint session of Congress eight days later and signed into law Aug. 6. A milestone in the struggle for civil rights, the law struck down the literacy tests that Black people had been compelled to take before they could register to vote and replaced segregationist voting registrars with federal registrars to ensure that they were no longer denied the ballot.

Once registered, millions of African Americans began transforming politics across the South. They gave Jimmy Carter, a son of Georgia, his margin of victory in the 1976 presidential election. (A popular poster proclaimed, “Hands that once picked cotton now can pick a President.”) And their voting power opened the door for Black people, including Lewis, to run for public office. Elected in 1986, he became the second African American in Congress from Georgia since Reconstruction.

‘Conscience of the Congress’

While Lewis represented Atlanta, his natural constituency was disadvantaged people everywhere. Known less for sponsoring major legislation than for his relentless pursuit of justice, his colleagues called him “the conscience of the Congress.”

When the House voted in December 2019 to impeach President Donald Trump, Lewis’ words rose above the rest.

“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something,” he said on the House floor. “To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”

His words resonated as well after he saw the video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as Floyd gasped for air.

“It was so painful, it made me cry,” Lewis told “CBS This Morning.” “People now understand what the struggle was all about,” he said. “It’s another step down a very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.”

As a younger man his words could be more militant. History remembers the March on Washington for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but Lewis startled and energized the crowd with his own fiery passion.

“By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers,” he told the cheering throng that August day, “we shall splinter the desegregated South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: ‘Wake up, America. Wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not be patient.”

His original text was more blunt. “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did,” he had written. President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill was “too little, too late,” he had written, demanding, “Which side is the federal government on?”

But King and other elders — Lewis was just 23 — worried that those first-draft passages would offend the Kennedy administration, which they felt they could not alienate in their drive for federal action on civil rights. They told him to tone down the speech.

Still, the crowd, estimated at more than 200,000, roared with approval at his every utterance.

An earnest man who lacked the silver tongue of other civil rights orators, Lewis could be pugnacious, tenacious and single-minded, and he led with a force that commanded attention.

He gained a reputation for having an almost mystical faith in his own survivability. One civil rights activist who knew him well told The New York Times in 1976: “Some leaders, even the toughest, would occasionally finesse a situation where they knew they were going to get beaten or jailed. John never did that. He always went full force into the fray.”

Lewis was arrested 40 times from 1960 to 1966. He was beaten senseless repeatedly by Southern policemen and freelance hoodlums. During the Freedom Rides in 1961, he was left unconscious in a pool of his own blood outside the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Montgomery, Alabama, after he and others were attacked by hundreds of white people. He spent countless days and nights in county jails and 31 days in Mississippi’s notoriously brutal Parchman Penitentiary.

Once he was in Congress, Lewis voted with the most liberal Democrats, although he also showed an independent streak. In his quest to build what King called “the beloved community” — a world without poverty, racism or war (Lewis adopted the phrase) — he routinely voted against military spending. He opposed the Persian Gulf war of 1991 and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed in 1992. He refused to take part in the 1995 “Million Man March” in Washington, saying that statements made by the organizer, Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, were “divisive and bigoted.”

In 2001, Lewis skipped the inauguration of George W. Bush, saying he thought that Bush, who had become president after the Supreme Court halted a vote recount in Florida, had not been truly elected.

In 2017 he boycotted Trump’s inauguration, questioning the legitimacy of his presidency because of evidence that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf.

That earned him a derisive Twitter post from the president: “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”

Trump’s attack marked a sharp detour from the respect that had been accorded Lewis by previous presidents, including, most recently, Barack Obama. Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2011.

In bestowing the honor in a White House ceremony, Obama said: “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.”

To His Family, ‘Preacher’

John Robert Lewis grew up with all the humiliations imposed by segregated rural Alabama. He was born on Feb. 21, 1940, to Eddie and Willie Mae (Carter) Lewis near the town of Troy on a sharecropping farm owned by a white man. After his parents bought their own farm — 110 acres for $300 — John, the third of 10 children, shared in the farm work, leaving school at harvest time to pick cotton, peanuts and corn. Their house had no plumbing or electricity. In the outhouse, they used the pages of an old Sears catalog as toilet paper.

John was responsible for taking care of the chickens. He fed them and read to them from the Bible. He baptized them when they were born and staged elaborate funerals when they died.

“I was truly intent on saving the little birds’ souls,” he wrote in his memoir, “Walking With the Wind” (1998). “I could imagine that they were my congregation. And me, I was a preacher.”

His family called him “Preacher,” and becoming one seemed to be his destiny. He drew inspiration by listening to a young minister named Martin Luther King on the radio and reading about the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott. He finally wrote a letter to King, who sent him a round-trip bus ticket to visit him in Montgomery, in 1958.

By then, Lewis had begun his studies at American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College) in Nashville, Tennessee, where he worked as a dishwasher and janitor to pay for his education.

In Nashville, Lewis met many of the civil rights activists who would stage the lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom Rides and voter registration campaigns. They included the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., who was one of the nation’s most prominent scholars of civil disobedience and who led workshops on Gandhi and nonviolence. He mentored a generation of civil rights organizers, including Lewis.

Lewis’ first arrest came in February 1960, when he and other students demanded service at whites-only lunch counters in Nashville. It was the first prolonged battle of the movement that evolved into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

But Lewis lost his family’s goodwill. When his parents learned that he had been arrested in Nashville, he wrote, they were ashamed. They had taught him as a child to accept the world as he found it. When he asked them about signs saying “Colored Only,” they told him, “That’s the way it is, don’t get in trouble.”

But as an adult, he said, after he met King and Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man was a flash point for the civil rights movement, he was inspired to “get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Getting into “good trouble” became his motto for life. A documentary film, “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” was released this month.

Despite the disgrace he had brought on his family, he felt that he had been “involved in a holy crusade” and that getting arrested had been “a badge of honor,” he said in an oral history interview in 1979 with Washington University.

In 1961, when he graduated from the seminary, he joined a Freedom Ride organized by the Congress of Racial Equality, known as CORE. He and others were beaten bloody when they tried to enter a whites-only waiting room at the bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Later, he was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, and beaten again in Montgomery, where several others were badly injured and one was paralyzed for life.

“If there was anything I learned on that long, bloody bus trip of 1961,” he wrote in his memoir, “it was this — that we were in for a long, bloody fight here in the American South. And I intended to stay in the middle of it.”

At the same time, a schism in the movement was opening between those who wanted to express their rage and fight back and those who believed in pressing on with nonviolence. Lewis chose nonviolence.

Overridden by ‘Black Power’

But by the time of the urban race riots of the 1960s, particularly in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965, many Black people had rejected nonviolence in favor of direct confrontation. Lewis was ousted as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1966 and replaced by the fiery Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the phrase “Black power.”

Lewis spent a few years out of the limelight. He headed the Voter Education Project, registering voters, and finished his bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy at Fisk University in Nashville in 1967.

During this period he met Lillian Miles, a librarian, teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer. She was outgoing and political and could quote King’s speeches verbatim. They were married in 1968, and she became one of his closest political advisers.

She died in 2012. Lewis’ survivors include several siblings and his son, John-Miles Lewis.

Lewis made his first attempt at running for office in 1977, an unsuccessful bid for Congress. He won a seat on the Atlanta City Council in 1981, and in 1986 he ran again for the House. It was a bitter race that pitted against each other two civil rights figures, Lewis and Julian Bond, a friend and former close associate of his in the movement. The charismatic Bond, more articulate and polished than Lewis, was the perceived favorite.

“I want you to think about sending a workhorse to Washington and not a show horse,” Lewis said during a debate. “I want you to think about sending a tugboat and not a showboat.”

Lewis won in an upset, with 52% of the vote. His support came from Atlanta’s white precincts and from working-class and poor Black voters who felt more comfortable with him than with Bond, although Bond won the majority of Black voters.

Not surprisingly, Lewis’ long congressional career was marked by protests. He was arrested in Washington several times, including outside the South African Embassy for demonstrating against apartheid and at Sudan’s Embassy while protesting genocide in Darfur.

He supported Obama’s health care bill in 2010, a divisive measure that drew to the Capitol angry protesters, including many from the right-wing Tea Party. Some demonstrators shouted obscenities and racial slurs at Lewis and other members of the Black Congressional Caucus.

“They were shouting, sort of harassing,” Lewis told reporters at the time. “But it’s OK. I’ve faced this before.”

In 2016, after a massacre at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub left 49 people dead, he led a sit-in on the House floor to protest federal inaction on gun control. The demonstration drew the support of 170 lawmakers, but Republicans dismissed it as a publicity stunt and squelched any legislative action.

Through it all, the events of Bloody Sunday were never far from his mind, and every year Lewis traveled to Selma to commemorate its anniversary. Over time, he watched attitudes change. At the ceremony in 1998, Joseph Smitherman, who had been Selma’s segregationist mayor in 1965 and was still mayor — although a repentant one — gave Lewis a key to the city.

“Back then, I called him an outside rabble-rouser,” Smitherman said of Lewis. “Today, I call him one of the most courageous people I ever met.”

Lewis was a popular speaker at college commencements and always offered the same advice — that the graduates get into “good trouble,” as he had done against his parents’ wishes.

He put it this way on Twitter in 2018:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

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