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John Lewis Biography and Photos

John Lewis is seen in front and side views, smiling slightly. He wears a mug shot board around his neck in the first photo, reading "Police Dept. Jackson Miss. 20886 / 5.24.61"

A mug shot of John Lewis, taken in 1961. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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.)

Seven youngish men in suits chat together at the Lincoln Memorial, in front of the famous statue of Abraham Lincoln

John Lewis (second from right) poses with other leaders of the 1963 March on Washington. (U.S. National Archives)

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.

Barack Obama (young and tall) shares an emotional hug with John Lewis (older and shorter) as they stand at the end of a bridge with blue sky above them

Congressman John Lewis hugs President Barack Obama on March 7, 2015 at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Alabama. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza.)

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.

Well, “There were giants on the Earth in those days,” as the saying goes. Rest in peace, John Lewis. See more photos at our full John Lewis biography »

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