The African-American icon marched with Martin Luther King Jr, was nearly beaten to death by police, and later as a sitting congressman was arrested multiple times for protesting genocide or leading immigration reform sit-ins.
Lewis was a sharecropper’s son whose fights for justice helped define an era, and whose moral authority as an indomitable elder statesman left a permanent imprint in Congress.
He was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in late 2019.
“Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of the 17-term congressman from Georgia.
She described Lewis as “a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation.”
Lewis clashed with President Donald Trump on multiple occasions — boycotting his inauguration and citing Russian interference in the 2016 election to question his legitimacy.
Risked ‘life and blood’
Lewis was just 21 when he became a founding member of the Freedom Riders, who fought segregation of the US transportation system in the early 1960s, eventually becoming one of the nation’s most powerful voices for justice and equality.
He was the youngest leader of the 1963 March on Washington, in which King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech.
Two years later Lewis nearly died while leading hundreds of marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on a peace march to Montgomery when state troopers, seeking to intimidate those demonstrating for voting rights for black Americans, attacked protesters.
Lewis suffered a fractured skull that day, which would become known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Fifty years later in 2015, he walked across the bridge arm in arm with Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, to mark the anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march.
Obama presented Lewis with the Medal of Freedom, among the nation’s highest civilian honors, at a White House ceremony in 2011.
“Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did,” Obama tweeted early Saturday.
“He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise,” Obama added.
Another civil rights giant also died Friday.
Reverend CT Vivian staged anti-segregation sit-ins in the 1940s, was an early advisor to King and helped organize the Freedom Rides. He died early Friday at 95.
Bernice King, youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. tweeted photographs of the two men early Saturday, with the caption: “Elders, now ancestors. Hallelujah.”
‘Conscience of Congress’
John Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama on February 21, 1940, the third of 10 children.
His community was almost entirely black, and he quickly learned about the segregation that afflicted Alabama.
Lewis, who organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and was arrested two dozen times for non-violent protests, was a founder and eventual chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, where he wrote speeches against police brutality and campaigned to register black voters.
He was elected to Congress in 1986 and quickly became a figure of moral authority.
Tributes poured in from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s top Republican, hailed Lewis as “a pioneering civil rights leader who put his life on the line to fight racism, promote equal rights, and bring our nation into greater alignment with its founding principles.”
Lewis had stepped away from his congressional duties in recent months as he underwent treatment for cancer.
But he returned to Washington in early June, in the midst of fiery demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, to walk in Black Lives Matter Plaza, the renamed intersection near the White House that was the site of protests against injustice.
“The winds are blowing, the great change is going to come,” Lewis said days earlier during a lawmakers’ discussion on race