Congressman John Lewis has died at age 80. A towering civil rights figure who survived having his skull fractured by Alabama state police on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, Lewis had announced late last year that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
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. https://t.co/XVcbTlsNNv
— John Lewis (@repjohnlewis) December 30, 2019
John Lewis was born in rural Alabama, the son of sharecroppers. At age 21 he was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, a mix of Black and white men whose act of civil disobedience was simply to ignore segregation rules and ride seated together in busses in the Deep South. For this, Lewis was beaten by mobs and then arrested and locked up for 40 days at the notorious Parchman Farm, otherwise known as Mississippi State Penitentiary. (Hence the mug shot at the top of this post.)
Lewis was just getting started. Elected Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he helped organize the 1963 March on Washington. John Lewis actually spoke at the gathering, before Martin Luther King, Jr. took the stage to deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
John Lewis never stopped working for civil rights and social justice for Black Americans, but he returned to greater fame in recent years, beginning with the election of his friend Barack Obama as president in 2008. Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. In 2015 they shared an emotional day together at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Alabama, on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
Lewis became so beloved a figure that he even crowd-surfed after an appearance on Stephen Colbert‘s late-night show in 2016.