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John Lewis dies at 80, after being a US civil rights hero and Democratic congressman

John Lewis, the civil rights hero and US Democratic congressman, has died at the age of 80.

But who was he? Lewis, who was born on 21 February 1940 in Alabama, became a prominent leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. A founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he became its chair in 1963, and helped organise the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech.

In 1965, his skull was fractured by Alabama state troopers as he and others led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, during the Selma to Montgomery protest marches for voting rights.

Lewis was elected as the congressman for Georgia’s 5th district in 1987 and held the office until his death. He announced he was being treated for stage 4 pancreatic cancer in December last year.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the civil rights leader stands beneath a bust of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as members of the Congressional Black Caucus gather for the memorial ceremony for the late Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, at the Capitol in Washington. Image credit AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

“I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life,” he said at the time. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed Lewis had died from pancreatic cancer in a statement last night.

Former president Barack Obama said Lewis “loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise”.

“I first met John when I was in law school, and I told him then that he was one of my heroes,” he said. “Years later, when I was elected a US senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders. When I was elected president of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made. And through all those years, he never stopped providing wisdom and encouragement to me and Michelle and our family. We will miss him dearly.

“It’s fitting that the last time John and I shared a public forum was at a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists who were helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

“Afterwards, I spoke to him privately, and he could not have been prouder of their efforts… 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.”

US President Barack Obama holds hands with US Representative John Lewis (R), one of the original marchers, alongside George W. Bush. Image credit AFP: Saul Loeb

Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, paid tribute to Lewis, saying he had fought “the good fight”.

Former president Bill Clinton said Lewis “gave all he had to redeem America’s unmet promise of equality and justice for all” and “became the conscience of the nation”.

John Lewis’s life was dedicated to bringing freedom and justice to all. As he declared 57 years ago during the March on Washington, standing in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial: ‘Our minds, souls, and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all the people.’

“How fitting it is that even in the last weeks of his battle with cancer, John summoned the strength to visit the peaceful protests where the newest generation of Americans had poured into the streets to take up the unfinished work of racial justice.”

Rep. John Lewis (second from right), with activist Roy Wilkins of the NAACP (left), the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and labor leader A. Philip Randolph. Image credit The Washington Informer

Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said that Lewis was a “pioneering civil rights leader who put his life on the line to fight racism”.

“Congressman Lewis’ place among the giants of American history was secure before his career in Congress had even begun,” the Republican senator said in a statement. “You did not need to agree with John on many policy details to be awed by his life.

“Dr. King famously said ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’… Our great nation’s history has only bent towards justice because great men like John Lewis took it upon themselves to help bend it. Our nation will never forget this American hero.”

Source: The Guardian


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