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Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis dead at 80

Lewis, the son of sharecroppers, was born in Alabama in 1940. Inspired by MLK he made a commitment at a young age to be part of the civil rights movement.

ATLANTA — John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and became a 17-term United States congressman died Friday at the age of 80.

Circumstances of Lewis' death were not immediately released.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser responded to the news saying, "In this moment, it is difficult and heartbreaking to comprehend a world without John Lewis. We knew John Lewis as the conscience of Congress, but often, he felt more like the conscience of our nation, the conscience of a generations-long movement to deliver on the promise of equal justice and equal opportunity." 

Bowser asked that D.C. honor Lewis' legacy.

“John Lewis had faith in our nation and in the next generation," Bowser said. "He warned us not to get lost in despair. So, in this moment of grief, we are hopeful – we are hopeful that, collectively, we can live up to his legacy. We are hopeful that we can put a lifetime of lessons into action and, together, we can redeem the soul of America.

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Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton also shared a tribute to Lewis, who she first worked with at the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and then in the House of Representatives.

“John's heroic courage came from principled conviction so deep that it led him to repeatedly risk his life to achieve equal treatment for all Americans," she said. "So searing was his example that John was elected chair of SNCC -- not because he was strongest but because he was the bravest. John's determination to "never give up or give in" was always leavened by his commitment to non-violence and love."

"In Congress, John Lewis brought the same combination of outspoken opposition on principled matters and reconciliation whenever it could be achieved," she continued. "There will never be another like him.”

John Robert Lewis, the son of sharecroppers, was born outside of Troy, Alabama on February 21, 1940. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he made a commitment at a young age to become part of the civil rights movement.

A student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University, Lewis protested during nonviolent sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and was often arrested.

He also participated in the Freedom Rides, aimed at desegregating interstate bus terminals, many times choosing to sit where only whites were allowed. He was often beaten by angry mobs and arrested by police.

Lewis helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and became its chairman in 1963, organizing student activists.

By 23, Lewis was one of what became known as the "Big Six," a group of civil rights leaders who organized the 1963 March on Washington. It was there that Dr. King gave his "I Have A Dream" speech.

Lewis was a keynote speaker at the event.

"To those who have said, 'Be patient and wait,' we have long said that we cannot be patient.  We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now," Lewis said to thunderous applause from the crowd.

The moment that may have defined Lewis' legacy, though, came two years later. On March 7, 1965, Lewis helped lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Some 600 nonviolent protesters marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. They were attacked by Alabama state troopers, and Lewis ended up with a fractured skull. The incident became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The accounts and images of that day are credited with helping pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

RELATED: John Lewis, maker of ‘good trouble,’ dies

Lewis, a Democrat, represented Georgia's 5th District since his election in 1986. He won re-election easily each time he was challenged, even running unopposed on the ballot in the general election six times, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.

While a member of Congress, Lewis continued the activism that made him an icon during the civil rights movement. He was one of eight Congress members arrested at an immigration rally in Washington, D.C. in October 2013.

Lewis led a sit-in on the floor of the United States House of Representatives, calling for legislative action on gun violence following the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting that killed 49 people in Orlando, Florida.

He also spoke at the 2018 March For Our Lives rally in Atlanta following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, after 17 students and staff were shot and killed. Lewis urged young people to use their votes to fight against gun violence.

“I gave a little bit of blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama 53 years ago for the right to vote,” Lewis said. “Send those folks home who cannot vote against guns.”

Lewis has not been shy about opposing the last two Republican presidents. Lewis boycotted the inauguration of President George W. Bush in 2001.

Sixteen years later, Lewis said in a television interview he did not believe Donald Trump was legitimately elected president, saying he believed Russian meddling helped Trump win. Again, Lewis skipped the inauguration.

Credit: AP
FILE - In this Nov. 18, 2016, file photo, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., poses for a photograph under a quote of his that is displayed in the Civil Rights Room in the Nashville Public Library in Nashville, Tenn. Lewis announced Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, that he has stage IV pancreatic cancer, vowing he will stay in office and fight the disease with the tenacity which he fought racial discrimination and other inequalities since the civil rights era. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

High honors and award-winning author

Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011. The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which awards its Profile in Courage Award, presented its only Lifetime Achievement award to Lewis in 2001.

“Courage is not heroic but as necessary as birds need wings to fly. Courage is not rooted in reason but rather courage comes from a divine purpose to make things right,” Lewis said when he accepted the award.

Lewis also became an award-winning author with a series of graphic novels called "March," aimed at teaching young readers about the civil rights movement. He won the National Book Award in 2016 for his third installment in the series. Lewis fought back tears as he accepted the award.

"I grew up in rural Alabama, very poor, very few books in our home,” he said. “I remember in 1956, when I was 16 years old, going to the public library to get library cards, and we were told the library was for whites only and not for coloreds. And to come here and receive this honor… it’s too much."

Lewis was not serious all the time. He showed he could still have fun at 76 years old when he crowd-surfed on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

Lewis was married to his wife, Lillian, for 44 years before her passing in 2012. He leaves behind a son, John-Miles Lewis.

Information from John Lewis's House of Representatives bio, Biography.com, and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation was used in this story. 

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