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.
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.”
Lewis has said King inspired his activism. Angered by the unfairness of the Jim Crow South, he launched what he called “good trouble” with organized protests and sit-ins. In the early 1960s, he was a Freedom Rider, challenging segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South and in the nation’s capital.
“We do not want our freedom gradual; we want to be free now,” he said at the time.
At age 25, Lewis helped lead a march for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where he and other marchers were met by heavily armed state and local police who attacked them with clubs, fracturing Lewis’ skull. Images from that “Bloody Sunday” shocked the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“I gave a little blood on that bridge,” he said years later. “I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death.”
Despite the attack and other beatings, Lewis never lost his activist spirit, taking it from protests to politics. He was elected to the Atlanta city council in 1981, then to Congress six years later.
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