Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader and Democratic congressman from Georgia, died Friday after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer, his family said in a statement. He was 80.
Lewis was an icon of the civil rights era who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. to organize non-violent marches and protests, including the 1963 March on Washington at which King gave his historic “I Have A Dream” speech. In 1965, Lewis led the famous march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery to demand voting rights for African Americans. When state troopers ordered the group of roughly 600 peaceful protesters to disperse, they stood their ground, and the troopers deployed violent tactics including tear gas and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. Lewis was beaten by police and his skull fractured — an attack that was captured by television cameras and broadcast to the nation, “galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act,” The New York Times writes. The act was passed eight days later.
55 years ago today, we were beaten, tear gassed, and trampled by horses. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die. I don't know how I made it back, but I know we cannot rest. We cannot become weary. We must keep pushing and pulling and find a way to get in the way. pic.twitter.com/gg6n1CyJls
— John Lewis (@repjohnlewis) March 7, 2020
Lewis was elected to Congress in 1987, and was known to his colleagues as “the conscience of the Congress,” the Times notes. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama in 2010.
Lewis announced his stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis in December of last year and said he planned to continue his work in Congress during treatment. “I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life,” he said at the time. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement that Lewis dedicated every day of his life to “bringing freedom and justice to all.” Obama said that “thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise.”