John Lewis, a U.S. congressman and civil rights icon who began his lifelong fight for racial justice as a college student, died on Friday. He was 80.
His death was confirmed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a press release. While the cause of death has not been confirmed, Lewis was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer in December 2019.
Lewis, who served as the representative of Georgia’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1986, has left a celebrated and accomplished legacy as a prominent racial justice advocate.
Lewis made several visits to Emory in recent years. In 2018, Lewis spoke to the Young Democrats of Emory in support of then-gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Lewis urged students to become politically active and use their votes to make the world a better place.
“Be hopeful, be optimistic, never become bitter,” Lewis told students. “There are forces in America today, in high places, trying to turn us back, divide us … We have to take our country back, and we have to save our democracy for generations yet unborn.”
Lewis spoke at Emory’s 169th Commencement in 2014 and was awarded an honorary doctor of law degree. He was also the keynote speaker at Oxford College’s 2019 Commencement.
Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama, on Feb. 21, 1940. The third youngest of 10 children, Lewis spent much of his childhood helping tend to his family’s farm.
As a child, Lewis aspired to become a preacher, practicing reciting the gospel to farm animals and his family. Lewis attended segregated grade schools throughout his entire childhood including after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.
In 1956, a photo of Lewis preaching publicly for the first time, at the age of 15, at the Macedonia Baptist Church was published in a Montgomery, Alabama, newspaper. While this was the first time Lewis saw his name in print, it would be far from the last.
Lewis became interested in the civil rights struggle as a teenager when he listened to radio-broadcasted speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., who then participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts from 1955 to 1956.
He attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University, both in Nashville, Tennessee. Lewis originally planned to help desegregate Troy University (Ala.), formerly known as Troy State College, which caught King’s attention and brought the pair together.
Though Troy State never responded to Lewis’ admission application, he became active in the student movement, organizing sit-ins and protests throughout Nashville.
As a college student, Lewis became one of the original 13 Freedom Riders in 1961, joining other nonviolent protesters in defying racist local ordinances that unlawfully segregated bus systems. The 13 protesters, six of whom were white, planned to travel across the South from Washington D.C to New Orleans but were attacked and arrested by racist counter-protesters and police forces. Lewis himself was injured as they traveled through South Carolina. Still, Lewis and his fellow Riders continued to protest legal segregation.
“We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal,” Lewis said in 2009, as he reflected on the Freedom Rides. “We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back.”
Lewis helped organize the 1963 March on Washington at 23 years old. He and other March on Washington participants were instrumental in campaigning for the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregationist Jim Crow policies.
The struggle for civil rights was far from over, however, and in 1965, during a protest in Selma, Alabama, Lewis, along with 600 other peaceful demonstrators, were attacked by armed state troopers. Lewis sustained a skull fracture and was arrested.
His career in politics began with an unsuccessful bid for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, a seat previously held by Andrew Young, who was nominated by the Carter administration to serve as the ambassador to the United Nations.
Though Lewis lost, his popularity and leadership earned him a position within the Carter administration, where he served for two years, and a seat on the Atlanta City Council for five years. In 1986, he began his tenure representing the 5th District where he would remain for 34 years, re-elected 16 times.
During his time in Congress, Lewis continued to advocate for civil rights. He opposed the 1991 Gulf War, fought back against attempts to weaken welfare programs and was arrested five times for protesting. Lewis stated that he was arrested 40 times throughout the civil rights movement.
Former President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Lewis in 2011, the highest civilian award that recognizes individuals who make “exceptional contributions” to the U.S. or the world.
Emory Law School established a chair position named after Lewis after receiving an anonymous gift of $1.5 million to fund the position.
In 2018, the city of Atlanta renamed Freedom Parkway to the John Lewis Freedom Parkway to pay homage to Lewis. At the renaming ceremony for the road, Lewis proclaimed, “We want people to learn from the city of Atlanta, learn that we are one people, we are one family. We all live in the same house: the American house, the world house.”
In his time representing a growing metropolitan city in the South, Lewis will live on as a foundational figure for Georgians and Americans alike. His memory will guide a younger generation in the pursuit of racial justice.
Lewis is survived by his son John-Miles Lewis. His wife, Lillian Miles, who was married to him for over 40 years, died in 2012.