Today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) said in a statement Friday night that “America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history.”
John Lewis, who went from being the youngest leader of the 1963 March on Washington to a long-serving congressman from Georgia and icon of the civil rights movement has passed away. He was 80.
In December 2019, Lewis had been battling Stage IV pancreatic cancer, which he said her learned about during a routine medical visit.
In a statement about his diagnosis, Lewis vowed to continue serving the 5th Congressional District during his treatment.
From the halls of Congress to the streets of Atlanta, Lewis made his name known during the civil rights movement as he stood with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in their fight for justice in the face of segregation.
Lewis has represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987.
Lewis was born the son of sharecroppers on Feb. 21, 1940. He and his siblings grew up working on the family’s farm in Troy, Alabama.
Troy, like many other cities in the United States at the time, was divided by race.
Lewis became inspired by the movement and the man who emerged as its non-violent leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“He lifted me; he inspired me,” Lewis said about King. “I wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He wrote me back.”
King sent Lewis a round-trip bus ticket to meet him in Montgomery.
“I saw Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy standing behind a desk in a little office, and Dr. King said, ‘Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?’ I was so scared,” Lewis said. “And he started calling me the boy from Troy. And during that time, we became like brothers.”
They became brothers in a movement that was gaining momentum and would forever change the nation.
From the Freedom Riders who integrated bus terminals in the South to the segregated lunch
counters in restaurants and stores, Lewis was part of a progressive movement that challenged the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the south.
That challenge led him to the nation’s capital in 1963, where he was the youngest speaker at the march on Washington.
Lewis was first elected to the U.S. House in 1986, defeating Julian Bond in a bitter Democratic primary to become the second African-American to represent Georgia in Congress since Reconstruction.
Since then, Lewis has been re-elected 16 times without serious opposition in the heavily-Democratic district, often with huge margins of victory. He won another two-year term in 2018, facing no opposition.
One of the central figures that helped him transition into a career in politics, was his wife Lillian Miles Lewis. Many thought the couple was a perfect match.
The Lewises were married in 1968.
Lillian Lewis continued to play a major behind-the-scenes role in her husband’s career, which progressed from winning a seat on the Atlanta City Council in 1981 to his upset victory over Bond in the 1986 congressional race.
While John forged his political career, his wife continued her career as an educator with an international perspective.
She was associate director of the Institute for International Affairs and Development at Atlanta University from 1984 to 1989, a job that called on her to help develop a major in international studies, with an emphasis in Africa and the Caribbean. From 1989 to 2003, she was director of external affairs in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at Clark Atlanta University.
Lillian Lewis died in 2012 after being ill for an extended period of time.
One of the fiercest critics of President Donald Trump, Lewis’ decision to boycott his inauguration in 2017 led the Republican to slam his Atlanta-based district as a “crime infested” area that’s in “horrible shape.”
Dubbed by allies as the “conscience of the House,” Lewis was a key supporter of the impeachment of Trump, delivering a fiery speech in September 2019 arguing that delaying the proceedings would “betray the foundation of our democracy.”
Rest in Power, Congressman John Lewis.
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