Civil rights pioneer, Rep. John Lewis, dead at 80

Civil rights pioneer, Rep. John Lewis, dead at 80
(Jamie Dupree)

U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a linchpin of early efforts to desegregate public businesses in the South as part of the broader Civil Rights movement, and a champion of civil disobedience and non-violent protests, died late Friday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

"John Lewis was a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "Every day of his life was dedicated to bringing freedom and justice to all."

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One of the original 'Freedom Riders' in 1961, Lewis was on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement in its early days, beaten repeatedly both by whites, and by police, most notably as he tried to lead a group of demonstrators across the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma, Alabama.

The violence in March of 1965 - captured by news photographers and delivered to a shocked nation - would be forever known as "Bloody Sunday."

"We were not going to run," Lewis recounted in his book, 'Walking With the Wind.' "And then all hell broke loose."

As Lewis was hit repeatedly by Alabama troopers, the group of demonstrators took shelter in a nearby church, as white onlookers attacked both the protesters, and journalists who were trying to document the scene.

While the "I have a dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior is remembered most for the August 1963 March on Washington, Lewis also spoke, criticizing the lack of action on Civil Rights by the Kennedy Administration and Congress.

“This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses,” Lewis said. “The voting section of this bill will not help thousands of black citizens who want to vote.”

"To those of us who have said, 'Be patient and wait,' we must say that 'patience' is a dirty and nasty word," Lewis continued.

“We want our freedom, and we wait now,” Lewis emphasized, then the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Lewis continued to work on Civil Right issues, but by the mid-1970's decided to try his hand at politics.

At first he lost a race for Congress to replace Anthony Young, who had been named as U.N. Ambassador by President Jimmy Carter, as Lewis lost to Wyche Fowler.

Lewis then won a seat on the Atlanta city council.

After Fowler decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 1986, Lewis tried another bid for Congress, defeating fellow civil rights activist and Georgia state representative Julian Bond in a runoff.

During his time in Congress, Lewis was a frequent champion of civil rights, voting rights, gun control and other causes.

In 2016, Lewis helped lead a sit-in on the floor of the House, in an effort to force Republicans to hold votes on gun control measures.

In death, Lewis drew praise from both sides of the aisle, a testament to his civil rights perch.

“No one embodied the word ‘courage’ better than John Lewis,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-GA). “As a civil rights icon, John inspired millions of Americans to fight injustice and reject the status quo.”