Civil rights hero John Lewis dies aged 80

18 July 2020, 08:46

Civil rights hero John Lewis, pictured in 2009
Civil rights hero John Lewis, pictured in 2009. Picture: Getty

By Megan White

Civil rights hero John Lewis, whose bloody beating by Alabama state troopers in 1965 helped galvanise opposition to racial segregation, has died aged 80.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed Mr Lewis's passing late on Friday night, calling the veteran politician "one of the greatest heroes of American history".

He was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, a group led by Martin Luther King Jr that had the greatest impact on the movement.

Mr Lewis received tributes from both Democrats and Republicans when he announced in December that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.

He was best known for leading some 600 protesters in the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

At age 25 - walking at the head of the march with his hands tucked in the pockets of his tan overcoat - Mr Lewis was knocked to the ground and beaten by police.

His skull was fractured, and nationally televised images of the brutality forced the country's attention on racial oppression in the South.

Within days, Reverend King led more marches in the state, and President Lyndon Johnson soon was pressing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.

The bill became law later that year, removing barriers that had barred black people from voting.

Former President Barack Obama penned an emotional tribute to Mr Lewis, in which he said he had "first met John when I was in law school, and I told him then that he was one of my heroes."

He wrote: "Considering his enormous impact on the history of this country, what always struck those who met John was his gentleness and humility.

"Born into modest means in the heart of the Jim Crow South, he understood that he was just one of a long line of heroes in the struggle for racial justice.

John Lewis speaks in Washington DC in 1964
John Lewis speaks in Washington DC in 1964. Picture: Getty

"Early on, he embraced the principles of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience as the means to bring about real change in this country, understanding that such tactics had the power not only to change laws, but to change hearts and minds as well.

"In so many ways, John’s life was exceptional. But he never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country might do.

"He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, a longing to do what’s right, a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect.

"And it’s because he saw the best in all of us that he will continue, even in his passing, to serve as a beacon in that long journey towards a more perfect union."

Mr Lewis turned to politics in 1981, when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council.

He won his seat in Congress in 1986 and spent much of his career in the minority.

After Democrats won control of the House in 2006, Mr Lewis became his party's senior deputy whip, a behind-the-scenes leadership post in which he helped keep the party unified.

Mr Lewis said he had been arrested 40 times in the 1960s, five more as a congressman.

At 78, he told a rally he would do it again to help reunite immigrant families separated by the Trump government.

"There cannot be any peace in America until these young children are returned to their parents and set all of our people free," Mr Lewis said in June, recalling the "good trouble" he got into protesting segregation as a young man.

"If we fail to do it, history will not be kind to us," he shouted. "I will go to the border. I'll get arrested again. If necessary, I'm prepared to go to jail."

In a speech the day of the House impeachment vote of President Trump, Mr Lewis explained the importance of that vote.

"When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something. Our children and their children will ask us 'what did you do? what did you say?'

"We have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history."

Mr Lewis's wife of four decades, Lillian Miles, died in 2012. They had one son, John Miles Lewis.

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