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The congressman had been battling pancreatic cancer.
Lewis’ journey took him from protests against Jim Crow laws in the South – including the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march known as “Bloody Sunday” — to a long career representing Georgia in the House of Representatives.
Lewis was 23 years old when he joined the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other speakers outside the Lincoln Memorial as part of the March on Washington. Lewis was the last surviving speaker from the event, The Washington Post reported.
“Farewell, sir,” Bernice King, the youngest child of MLK, wrote on Twitter. “You did, indeed, fight the good fight and get into a lot of good trouble. You served God and humanity well. Thank you. Take your rest.”
“Good trouble” was a favorite phrase that Lewis used to refer to political activism.
Word of Lewis’ death came just hours after that of another noted civil rights activist, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, who died Friday at age 95.
“Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way,” former President Barack Obama wrote on Twitter. “John Lewis did.”
“We have lost a giant,” former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said in a statement. “John Lewis gave all he had to redeem America’s unmet promise of equality and justice for all, and to create a place for us to build a more perfect union together.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., confirmed Lewis’ passing late Friday night, calling 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,” Pelosi said. “May his memory be an inspiration that moves us all to, in the face of injustice, make ‘good trouble, necessary trouble.’”
‘Put his life on the line’
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also paid tribute to Lewis.
“The Senate and the nation mourn the loss of Congressman John Lewis, a pioneering civil rights leader who put his life on the line to fight racism, promote equal rights, and bring our nation into greater alignment with its founding principles,” McConnell wrote.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said Lewis “changed our world in profound and immeasurable ways.”
“A civil rights icon, freedom fighter, and beloved Georgian, @repjohnlewis lost his battle with cancer today,” Kemp wrote on Twitter. “Our nation will never be the same without him. There are no words to adequately express the sadness that countless Americans are feeling upon learning this news.
“John Lewis changed our world in profound and immeasurable ways. @GAFirstLady, the girls, and I are praying for all his loved ones, friends, and colleagues in this incredibly difficult time.”
Lewis’s announcement in late December 2019 that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer — “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said — inspired tributes from both sides of the aisle, and an unstated accord that the likely passing of this Atlanta Democrat would represent the end of an era.
‘Big Six’ activists
Lewis was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, a group led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that had the greatest impact on the movement. He was best known for leading some 600 protesters in the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
At age 25 — walking at the head of the march with his hands tucked in the pockets of his tan overcoat — Lewis was knocked to the ground and beaten by police. His skull was fractured, and nationally televised images of the brutality forced the country’s attention on racial oppression in the South.
Lewis joined King and four other civil rights leaders in organizing the 1963 March on Washington. He spoke to the vast crowd just before King delivered his epochal “I Have a Dream” speech.
A 23-year-old firebrand, Lewis toned down his intended remarks at the insistence of others, dropping a reference to a “scorched earth” march through the South and scaling back criticisms of President John Kennedy. It was a potent speech nonetheless, in which he vowed: “By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in an image of God and democracy.”