John Lewis, Civil Rights Icon and Longtime Congressman, Dies at 80

Rep. John Lewis was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December 2019

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., waits to enter the Senate chamber to listen to the farewell address of the Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the Capitol on Tuesday, December 3, 2019
Georgia Rep. John Lewis in 2019. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call

Rep. John Lewis, a longtime congressman and renowned civil rights activist, has died. He was 80.

The politician died on Friday, according to multiple reports. A senior Democratic official confirmed Lewis' death to the New York Times.

Lewis was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in December 2019.

"The world has lost a legend; the civil rights movement has lost an icon, the City of Atlanta has lost one of its most fearless leaders, and the Congressional Black Caucus has lost our longest serving member. The Congressional Black Caucus is known as the Conscience of the Congress. John Lewis was known as the conscience of our caucus," the Congressional Black Caucus said in a statement. "A fighter for justice until the end, Mr. Lewis recently visited Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington DC. His mere presence encouraged a new generation of activist to “speak up and speak out” and get into “good trouble” to continue bending the arc toward justice and freedom."

After announcing his cancer diagnosis, Lewis said he felt "ready for the fight," though he was "clear-eyed" about what it meant to be battling cancer.

In early June, Lewis told New York Magazine that his "health is improving" and he was "doing better" at the time. "But I have good days and days not so good," he continued.

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Lewis dedicated his life to protecting human rights and was at the forefront of the civil rights movement.

Born to sharecroppers in Alabama in 1940, Lewis was constantly inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and the activism going on around him.

He later attended Fisk University, where he organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters and became an avid Freedom Rides participant, according to his website.

At only 23 years old, Lewis was already named one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1963, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

He was also a leader at the march in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, which led to the eventual passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In 1986, Lewis was elected to Congress where he continued to serve as U.S. Representative of Georgia's Fifth Congressional District.

During his time in office, Lewis advocated for healthcare reform, improvements in education and the fight against poverty. He also oversaw multiple renewals of the Voting Rights Act.

Former President Barack Obama awarded Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his life’s work in 2011.

<a href="" data-inlink="true">Barack Obama</a> embraces Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., after Lewis introduced the president with an emotional speech by the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," a landmark event of the civil rights movement, . Rep. Lewis was beaten during "Bloody Sunday" and is a leader of the civil rights movement Obama Selma 50th, Selma, USA
President Barack Obama hugs Rep. John Lewis o the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday". Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Shutterstock

Most recently, the congressman spoke out about his views on activism, racial injustice and police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

"You say to yourself, 'How many more? How long? How long?' " Lewis told New York Magazine.

He continued, "We must never ever give up, or give in, or throw in the towel. We must continue to press on! And be prepared to do what we can to help educate people, to motivate people, to inspire people to stay engaged, to stay involved, and to not lose their sense of hope."

"We must continue to say we’re one people," Lewis said. "We’re one family. We all live in the same house."

Lewis is survived by his only son, John Miles.

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