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Rep. John Lewis, known for his work in civil rights, died at 80 years old on July 17 after a battle with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP/Shutterstock)

Remembering Rep. John Lewis: A Civil Rights Icon

Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon and activist, died July 17 at age 80. As a congressman, Lewis was known for his strong dedication to uphold morality above politics. The son of sharecroppers, Lewis gained prominence as a civil rights leader who fought Jim Crow laws, racial inequality, and police brutality, and the impact of his legacy has been felt worldwide.

Congress announced that the Lewis family will wait to release further funeral plans until after the services of another prominent leader, Rev. C.T. Vivian, who also passed away July 17. There has been no confirmation yet on whether Lewis’ body will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol building.

On Monday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared on CBS This Morning to discuss Lewis’s legacy, and the Georgia delegation honored Lewis with a moment of silence. “I served with him for 33 years in the Congress of the United States,” Pelosi said on show. “And he, again, challenged our conscience in so many ways in terms of equality and justice. And it was justice for all.”

In a statement about Lewis’s death, former President Barack Obama memorialized the late congressman’s dedication to civil rights. “He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise,” Obama wrote for Medium. “And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.”

Related story: John Lewis, Barack Obama Share MLK’s Legacy with Young Leaders 

For several minutes Monday, dozens of lawmakers stood on the House floor to take a moment of silence. A black drape was hung over Lewis’ door, and handwritten notes were also left in his honor. Flowers were also placed in his memory.

Elsewhere, celebrities including late-night TV hosts Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah also dedicated segments of their Monday night shows to Lewis.

 

In December 2019, Lewis had announced that he’d been battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Although his illness forced him to the sidelines of the recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism, he spoke last month on CBS This Morning about how he saw those protests as a continuation of his legacy. “It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets — to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble,’” he said on the show.

One prolific leadership moment for Lewis was when he led the 1965 Selma march and survived a violent attack by police. The incident raised awareness about civil rights abuses in the U.S. Lewis was also the last surviving speaker of from the 1963 March on Washington and was also one of the original 13 Freedom Riders who protested against segregated public transportation across the South in 1961. He went on to become a Georgia representative who was known as “the conscience of the Congress” by his colleagues.

Lewis was an advocate for the impeachment of President Trump. While Democrats celebrated the historic vote for Trump to be impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, Lewis urged his fellow lawmakers not to celebrate the vote, but to mourn its necessity.

During the December impeachment hearings, Lewis said on the House floor, “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?’ For some, this vote may be hard, but we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”

Georgia Democrats chose senator Nikema Williams to fill Lewis’ seat in Congress. She is the first Black woman elected to serve the Atlanta-area district in Congress. According to reports, the Democratic executive committee overwhelmingly voted for Williams over several other candidates including state Rep. Park Cannon, Atlanta council member Andre Dickens and Georgia NAACP President James “Major” Woodall. These candidates were nominated from a pool of more than 130 applicants.

“Nobody could possibly fill the shoes of Congressman Lewis,” Williams said Monday. “His leadership and fighting spirit is needed now more than ever in this country. I believe it is imperative that we choose someone with a long track record of fearlessly standing up for what is right and someone who will take on the endless attacks on our rights that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from the Republican Party.”

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