WASHINGTON (Reuters) – John Lewis, who died on Friday at age 80, was a hero of the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s who endured beatings by white police and mobs and played an outsized role in American politics for 60 years.
Lewis, an Alabama sharecropper’s son elected in 1986 as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia, died after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
A protege of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis led sit-ins to integrate all-white lunch counters, was one of the original “Freedom Riders” who integrated buses, and suffered a skull fracture while demonstrating for Black voting rights in a savage beating by a nightstick-wielding white Alabama state trooper during an incident now called “Bloody Sunday.”
Lewis was just 18 when he first met King and went on to play a vital role in the civil rights movement that strove for equality for Blacks in an America grappling with racial bigotry and segregation, particularly in the South.
As a congressman, Lewis tangled with President Donald Trump starting even before Trump took office. Lewis in January 2017 said he did not view Trump as a “legitimate” president because of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to boost his candidacy. Trump drew criticism even from fellow Republicans when he called Lewis “all talk” and “no action.”
Lewis was present at many of the civil rights movement’s seminal moments, and was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, hoping for a land where Blacks “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Lewis, the last surviving speaker at that speech, maintained the fight for civil rights until the end of his life. He made his last public appearance in June, as protests for racial justice swept the United States and the world.
Using a cane, he walked with Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser on a street by the White House that Bowser had just renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza, which had just been dedicated with a large yellow mural – large enough to be seen from space – reading “Black Lives Matter.”
Amid a national movement to abolish Confederate monuments and symbols, calls have grown rename the bridge in Selma, Alabama, where Lewis was brutally beaten during a 1965 voting rights march, for Lewis. It is named for Edmund Pettus, who fought in the Confederate Army and robbed African-Americans of their right to vote after Reconstruction.
Long before the March on Washington, Lewis helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which became a prominent civil rights group, and served as its president for three years.
He proved he was willing to risk his life for the cause of civil rights and non-violent protest and organized the first lunch-counter sit-ins demanding service for Blacks at whites-only eateries.
In 1960, at a whites-only diner in Nashville, Tennessee, a white waitress dumped cleaning powder down his back and water on his food. He was beaten by whites in South Carolina and Alabama during 1961 anti-segregation bus tours called Freedom Rides. And he suffered further injuries during “Bloody Sunday” in 1965 in Selma.
“I thought I was going to die a few times,” he said in a 2004 interview, mentioning Selma and a 1961 mob beating at a bus station in Montgomery, Alabama. “I thought I saw death, but nothing can make me question the philosophy of non-violence.”
Barack Obama, the first Black U.S. president, awarded Lewis the presidential medal of freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, in 2011.
“Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind – an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time, whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now,” Obama said a White House ceremony.
Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940, in Troy, Alabama, when Blacks faced segregation in all public facilities and were effectively barred from voting in the U.S. South – where Black slavery ended only due to the 1861-1865 Civil War – thanks to the notorious “Jim Crow” laws.