Beloved civil rights icon John Lewis dies at age 80

Committed to the cause of civil rights until his last days, enduring icon John Lewis, career U.S. congressman and beloved leader, commented on the national tragedy of George Floyd’s killing to CBS “This Morning’s” Gayle King. “The way this young man died…it made me so sad. It was so painful. It made me cry. I kept saying to myself, how many more?

“How many more young Black men will be murdered? The madness must stop. It was very moving…to see hundreds and thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets to speak up, to speak out.”

He continued, “You cannot stop the call of history. You may use troopers. You may use fire hoses and water, but it cannot be stopped. There cannot be any turning back. We have come too far and made too much progress to stop now and go back.”    

The long-revered elder statesman had stood at the forefront of the fight for racial equality since 1961 as one of the 13 original Freedom Riders to challenge the rule of Jim Crow. In 1963, Lewis, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was elected to serve as chair, joining Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the “Big Six” leading the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

After which, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act became law. Though unquestionably part of the force responsible for it becoming law, Lewis was disappointed that it failed to protect African Americans from police brutality or afford the right to vote, describing it as “too little and too late.”

During his tenure, SNCC opened Freedom Schools, launched the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a hard-fought campaign to register Black voters across the South. Lewis grew to national stature for his prominent role in the Selma to Montgomery marches when, on March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday,” he and fellow activist Hosea Williams led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. This sped the passage of 1965’s Voting Rights Act.

Elected to the U.S. Congress, reelected 16 times, Lewis represented Georgia’s 5th District, and was recognized as one of the most liberal congressmen to have represented a district in the Deep South. However, he was described by The Washington Post as “a fiercely partisan Democrat but … also fiercely independent.” 

While in office, Lewis sustained a spirit of activism, speaking out in support of gay rights and national health insurance. He opposed the U.S. waging of the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2000 trade agreement with China. He opposed the Clinton administration on NAFTA and welfare reform, which he decried as a political and moral affront, stating, “Where is the sense of decency? What does it profit a great nation to conquer the world, only to lose its soul?”

An early opponent of the Iraq war, Lewis was cited by the Associated Press as “the first major House figure to suggest impeaching George W. Bush,” and arguing that the president “deliberately, systematically violated the law” in authorizing the National Security Agency to conduct wiretaps without a warrant. Lewis said, “He is not king; he is president.”

In the wake of the mass shooting that took place on June 12, 2016, in Orlando, Florida, Lewis led a sit-in comprised of approximately 40 Democrats on the House floor June 22 in an attempt to bring attention to and force Congress to address gun violence with definitive legislative action.

Lewis also protested the presidency of Donald Trump, who was elected on November 8, 2016. In an interview with Chuck Todd for NBC News’ “Meet the Press” which aired on January 15, 2017, Lewis said he didn’t believe Trump was a “legitimate president” because of Russian interference in the election. “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton,” Lewis said. He also said he would not attend Trump’s inauguration.

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2019, Lewis stated: “I have been in some kind of fight—for freedom, equality, basic human rights—for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”

On July 17, 2020, Congressman John Lewis, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 from President Barack Obama, died at the age of 80.