Civil rights icon and conscience of Congress dies

John Lewis, the civil rights icon and longtime Georgia congressman, has died of cancer. He was 80-years-old. Congressman Lewis was a towering figure of the civil rights movement, and later became known as the “conscience of Congress”.

He one of the Big Six civil rights activists led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, and was front and centre for the movement’s most pivotal moments.

Mr Lewis spoke to the massed crowds at the 1963 March on Washington, just before King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Then in 1965, he led some 600 protesters in the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where was brutally assaulted by police and left with a fractured skull. Images of the violent encounter drew national attention and led to more marches across the state. The Voting Rights Act was passed into law later that year.

He continued his struggle for racial justice throughout his long career in the House of Representatives, to which he was elected 17 times.

When the police killing of George Floyd sparked the largest protests for racial justice since the civil rights era, Mr Lewis was in the midst of his battle with cancer. Speaking in June about the developments, he told CBS: “You cannot stop the call of history.”

“You may use troopers. You may use fire hoses and water, but it cannot be stopped. There cannot be any turning back. We have come too far and made too much progress to stop now and go back,” he said.

Throughout his life, he spoke often of his belief in “good trouble, necessary trouble,” to bring about change.

When Barack Obama, America’s first black president, was inaugurated in 2009, he handed Mr Lewis a photograph that was signed with the words: “Because of you, John.” The two of them marched hand in hand in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday attack.

Mr Lewis, who has served in congress since 1987, announced in December last year that he had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. Doctors detected the disease during a routine medical visit.

“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.”
John Lewis with Joe Biden ((AP))

His family confirmed his death in a statement released late on Friday evening.

“He was honoured and respected as the conscience of the US Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother,» the statement said. «He was a stalwart champion in the ongoing struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called 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,» Ms Pelosi said.

“May his memory be an inspiration that moves us all to, in the face of injustice, make ‘good trouble, necessary trouble.’”

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