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Rep. John Lewis

A lion of the Civil Rights Movement and ‘conscience of Congress’ dies at 80

Free Press staff, wire reports | 7/23/2020, 6 p.m.
Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a lion of the Civil Rights Movement whose bloody beating by Alabama state troopers in ...
Rep. John Lewis

The huge demonstration galvanized the movement, but success didn’t come quickly. After extensive training in non- violent protest, Rep. Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams led demonstrators on a planned march of more than 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, on March 7, 1965. A phalanx of police blocked their exit from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

Authorities shoved, then swung their truncheons, fired tear gas and charged on horseback, sending many to the hospital and horrifying much of the nation. Dr. King returned with thousands, completing the march to Montgomery before the end of the month.

Rep. Lewis turned to politics in 1981, when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. He won his seat in Congress in 1986 and spent much of his career in the political minority. After Democrats won control of the House in 2006, Rep. Lewis became his party’s senior deputy whip, a behind-the-scenes leadership post in which he helped keep the party unified.

In June 2016, Rep. Lewis led House Democrats in 26-hour sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to push for federal gun control legislation in the wake of a mass shooting at an Orlando night club in which 49 people were killed and 53 others were wounded.

He also worked for 15 years to gain approval for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Humble and unfailingly friendly, Rep. Lewis was revered on Capitol Hill. But as one of the most liberal members of Congress, he often lost policy battles, from his effort to stop the Iraq War to his defense of young immigrants.

He met bipartisan success in Congress in 2006 when he led efforts to renew the Voting Rights Act, but the U.S. Supreme Court later invalidated much of the law, and it became once again what it was in his youth, a work in progress. Later, when the presidency of Donald Trump challenged his civil rights legacy, Rep. Lewis made no effort to hide his pain. He refused to attend President Trump’s inauguration, saying he didn’t consider him a “legitimate president” because Russians had conspired to get him elected.

When President Trump later complained about immigrants from “s---hole countries,” Rep. Lewis declared, “I think he is a racist ... we have to try to stand up and speak up and not try to sweep it under the rug.”

Rep. Lewis said he’d been arrested 40 times in the 1960s, five more as a congressman. At 78, he told a rally he’d do it again to help reunite immigrant families separated by the Trump administration.

“There cannot be any peace in America until these young children are returned to their parents and set all of our people free,” Rep. Lewis said in June. “If we fail to do it, history will not be kind to us,” he said. “I will go to the border. I’ll get arrested again. If necessary, I’m prepared to go to jail.”

In a speech the day of the House impeachment vote of President Trump, Rep. Lewis explained the importance of that vote.

“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something. Our children and their children will ask us ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ We have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”

In 2011, Rep. Lewis was honored by then President Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and they marched hand in hand in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday attack in 2015.