John Lewis, the son of Alabama sharecroppers in the Jim Crow era who went on to become the dean of Georgia’s congressional delegation with legendary credentials as both a civil rights fighter and longtime Democratic lawmaker, has died. He was 80.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed his death late Friday night, calling him “one of the greatest heroes of American history.”
“All of us were humbled to call Congressman Lewis a colleague, and are heartbroken by his passing,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “May his memory be an inspiration that moves us all to, in the face of injustice, make ‘good trouble, necessary trouble.’”
The death of Mr. Lewis, who had fought pancreatic cancer, marks a milepost in American history as his departure was the last of all the African-American speakers at the historic March on Washington in 1963. Then 23 years old, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and an acolyte of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Lewis was the youngest speaker at that famous event.
But Mr. Lewis left his stamp as a civil rights fighter beyond the Mall and across his native Deep South. He was assaulted in 1961 as one of the original Freedom Riders; he was an inmate in numerous southern jail cells for non-violent offenses; and he was bloodied on the bridge in Selma, Ala., in the infamous 1965 clash between protesters and state and local law enforcement.
Indeed, that last incident, known as “Bloody Sunday” in civil rights lore, provided a kind of trademark for Mr. Lewis during his subsequent long career as a politician as he would frequently note there are “still many bridges to cross.”
“We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal,” Mr. Lewis told the Smithsonian Magazine on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders. “We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back.”
He drew on the bridge crossing metaphor again in December 2019 when he startled friends by announcing he had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, a disease he vowed to fight with all the tools of modern medicine and his own proven tenacity.
Longtime colleagues said Mr. Lewis’ extraordinary resolve was among the qualities that set him apart.
“Not everybody gets the calling to be a leader, because only a few people have the charisma and the courage John Lewis had,” said Southern Christian Leadership Council President Charles Steele Jr.
Mr. Steele remembered Mr. Lewis as a stalwart backer of both the SCLC, an organization forever linked to King, and myriad other groups who tirelessly battled ingrained individual and institutional racism.
“Death couldn’t stop him then,” Mr. Steele said. “He would never be relieved of that boulder on his shoulder. Whenever you needed him, you would always get not just Rep. Lewis, but the warrior.”
That combative spirit carried over into his long stint as a public official, as Mr. Lewis became a staunch partisan in Washington.
He boycotted the inaugurations of Republican presidents in the 21st century, publicly denouncing both George W. Bush and Donald Trump as illegitimate chief executives. He was the first notable Democrat in the House to advocate impeaching Mr. Bush. In 2008, he compared Republican presidential candidate John McCain to George Wallace, accusing Mr. McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, of “sowing the seeds of hatred and division.”
Despite such hardcore partisan stunts, Mr. Lewis maintained friendships with some Republicans. In fact, he was close with Georgia’s recently retired Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson.
The two men were born a few years apart, and after Mr. Lewis’ family moved from his native Alabama to Atlanta when he was a boy, the two went through school integration in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education from different perspectives.
“Those were very intense times,” Mr. Isakson said. “John and I would say that we came at it from different races but not different sides. We had one heart.”
In Mr. Isakson’s view, it is a forgotten element of the civil rights struggle that so many key decisions seemed to involve the young, but that was because at that time the sentiments of adults were too fixed, their attitudes too rigid and wrong-headed.
As a young man, Mr. Lewis found himself in a remarkable moment in time when several African-American statesmen from different corners of the Deep South all converged in Atlanta, Mr. Isakson said. The group included King and Andrew Young, who would go on to serve as the U.S. representative at the United Nations and then become mayor of Atlanta.
“It was just a classy group of men, all of them had class,” Mr. Isakson said. “And John Lewis was always who he was: a committed Christian, a committed citizen, and a man of action for his race and his city.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by many of the younger people who pursued political careers through his inspiration and support.
“The words that come to my mind with John Lewis are ‘integrity’ and ‘grace,’” said Theron Johnson, a Georgia-based Democratic consultant who served on Mr. Lewis’ staff and managed his successful 2008 campaign. “He has never gotten the credit he deserves for the generational impact he’s had. He mentored so many people like me, shaping the careers of people not just in Atlanta but all over.
“I remember reading about John Lewis when I was in elementary school, and when you get the call to work with your hero, well it was one of the best days of my life,” Mr. Johnson said, noting he was stunned by the announcement of Mr. Lewis’ disease.
Mr. Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama, and as a boy would practice his preaching and oratory on the family’s chickens. The family moved to Atlanta when he was young, and he went on to earn degrees from American Baptist College and Fisk University.
His political career began in 1981 with a successful run at an Atlanta City Council seat, and then in 1986 he beat state Rep. Julian Bond in a nasty Democratic primary before being elected to the House that November. He held Georgia’s 5th District seat ever since, often taking in more than 70% of the vote and running without opposition six times.
During his decades in the House, Mr. Lewis emerged as one of the most reliable Democratic votes in Washington. He consistently opposed trade deals, voting against both NAFTA and President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership. He was also a vehement opponent of welfare reform, although his predictions of catastrophe did not come to pass.
That formidable lawmaking run, along with awards such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed on Mr. Lewis in 2011, represents an achievement no one in his youth would have ever dreamed possible, according to Mr. Steele.
To black boys in Jim Crow-era Alabama, the concept of an African-American man being a powerful figure in Washington, chairing committees, receiving honorary degrees from Ivy League schools, and having a U.S. Navy ship named after you all seemed as improbable as people on Mars.
“Oh, my, no!” Mr. Steele said when asked if anyone envisioned such a career arc. “We didn’t know we were making history as young men, either.
“But we all know at some point, no matter what your accomplishments, your time comes,” he added. “You never know why or when, and John Lewis exemplified how you live when you are already prepared for this.”
Late Decembers often brought dramatic developments to Mr. Lewis, of which his Dec. 29 cancer announcement was but the latest. He met his wife, Lillian Miles, at a New Year’s Eve party and they married in 1968. She died on New Year’s Eve in 2012. He is survived by the couple’s son, John-Miles Lewis.