His death represents the end of an era, not only for Congress but for the country as a whole. A survivor of Alabama’s “Bloody Sunday” massacre in 1965 and a protegé of Martin Luther King Jr. who would ultimately inspire Barack Obama to enter public office, Lewis was one of the last living leaders of the civil rights movement. A member of Congress for more than thirty years, he channeled all he had learned from his fight for equality as a young man into empowering youth and minority communities and encouraging activism. After the election of President Donald Trump he became, in his mid 70s, a self-defined active leader of the resistance movement, boycotting the 2017 inauguration and delivering an impassioned speech on the need to impeach the President last October.
“He was known as one of the most dedicated, principled, courageous civil rights activists of all,” Clayborne Carson, a historian and Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, told TIME. “There were a lot of people who I apply those adjectives to, but I think he exemplified them as well or better than anyone else.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed Lewis’s death in a statement, saying, “Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history: Congressman John Lewis, the Conscience of the Congress.
“John Lewis was a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation – from the determination with which he met discrimination at lunch counters and on Freedom Rides, to the courage he showed as a young man facing down violence and death on Edmund Pettus Bridge, to the moral leadership he brought to the Congress for more than 30 years.”
Lewis’ death came months after he was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in December 2019, which his office said was discovered 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 in a statement announcing his diagnosis. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.” Although he soon began treatments in Washington, he did not shirk his duties, both to Congress and the fight for equality. In March 2020 he returned twice to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, where he reiterated the importance of voting—a right for which he had almost been killed fighting for half a century ago. “We must go out and vote like we never, ever voted before,” Lewis told a cheering crowd. “I’m gonna continue to fight. We need your prayers now more than ever before.”
Those sentiments illuminate how, in a sense, Lewis’ life is a microcosm—albeit an extraordinary one—of the evolution and struggles of African Americans in the second half of the twentieth century in the United States. Born in 1940 in Troy, Alabama to the son of sharecroppers, he came of age in the heart of a region where legalized racial inequities deemed him a second-class citizen from birth.
But the treatment he received only imbued him with a sense of determination to change things, an outlook largely shaped by observing the activism of his idol: Martin Luther King Jr. Lewis first met King in 1958 as an eighteen-year-old. Frustrated by his education in segregated schools, he had applied to all-white Troy University but had not heard back. He sought the advice of King in a letter, who promptly booked him a ticket to Montgomery to discuss his plight and whether he should push for admission to Troy University in an attempt to integrate his hometown’s institution. He had been inspired by King’s activism leading the Montgomery bus boycott, which took place less than 60 miles away from Troy, and frequently listened to King’s sermons that were broadcast on the radio for inspiration.
“I had grown up in rural Alabama very, very poor. I saw signs that said White and Colored…And I would ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, “Why? Why is that?” And they’d say, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in trouble. Don’t get in the way.” But that day, listening to Dr. King, it gave me the sense that things could change,” Lewis wrote in LIFE for Martin Luther King Jr.: 50 Years Later, a tribute to King half a century after his 1968 assassination.
Path to Civil Rights
Despite King’s assurances of support if he were to take legal action against the University, Lewis did not move forward because his parents were concerned it would endanger them. Instead, he went to Tennessee for college, graduating from American Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961 and later receiving a bachelor’s from Fisk University in 1967. Both universities were almost entirely African American.
During his time in the seminary Lewis began attending lectures on non-violent protests by James Lawson, a civil rights leader who was at the time a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. Inspired by Lawson, he started participating in sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville, which began shortly after the famed sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was during these sit-ins that Lewis was first arrested.
In 1961, Lewis also joined the group of inaugural freedom riders traveling from the East Coast to the South while challenging interstate segregation. He was arrested in Birmingham and beaten at a bus stop in Montgomery, but neither event deterred his future involvement in the movement. Within two years, he had ascended to the leadership of the civil rights movement, chairing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which helmed the movement’s student activism. He went on to become the youngest person to speak at the March on Washington in 1963. “How long can we be patient?” a young Lewis told the throng of thousands gathered in the nation’s capitol. “We want our freedom, and we want it now.”
Speaking to TIME in 2013 for the 50th anniversary of the March, Lewis recalled how he was struck by the significance of the moment at the time. “I stood up and I said to myself, ‘This is it,’ ” he recalled. “I looked straight out and I started speaking.”
In March of 1965, in the midst of his tenure chairing the SNCC, Lewis was beaten by law enforcement while on the front lines of the 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery to push for voting rights, in an infamous episode that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” King had planned to stay in Atlanta because aides feared for his safety, TIME reported in a cover story at the time. So Lewis and Hosea Williams, another civil rights activist, led the hundreds of marchers trying to reach the Edmund Pettus bridge. “We’re not going to jump,” Lewis later remembered telling Williams. “We’re not going back. We’re going to move forward.” And that’s what we did.”
They were quickly greeted by law enforcement officers, some on horseback, others holding clubs, all ordering them to halt. “Turn around and go back to your church!” State Police Major Cloud shouted into a bullhorn. ‘You’ve got two minutes to disperse!”
The marchers stayed put, and the troopers unleashed tear gas and starting beating them. Lewis sustained a fractured skull and was hospitalized. “I thought I was going to die on that bridge. I thought I saw death,” he recalled 50 years after the march, speaking at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, which had sheltered him after the violence. “I don’t recall how we got back across that bridge, back to this church…but I refused to die.”
Despite his injuries, Lewis joined King and the other activists who resumed the march two weeks later to Montgomery. The National Guard accompanied them to ensure their safety. Less than five months later, then-President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, banning racial discrimination from voting practices.
Lewis stepped down as SNCC chair in 1966, but he would go on to help legislate the change he championed. As Director of the Voter Education project from 1971 until 1977, he registered four million minorities to voter rolls until then-President Jimmy Carter appointed him Associate Director of the Federal Volunteer Agency ACTION.
His advocacy for equal rights ultimately led him to the political arena, where he spent the final chapter of his life. After running unsuccessfully as the Democratic nominee for Georgia’s fifth district in 1977, he was elected to serve on the City Council in Atlanta. In 1986, he prevailed in his quest to serve as Congressman, defeating former State Representative—and fellow civil rights activist—Julian Bond in the runoff for the Democratic primary, and subsequently prevailing in the general election. He held this role until his death.
Known as “the conscience of Congress,” Lewis was respected, if not revered, by members on both sides of the aisle, a rare feat in today’s polarized environment. It was not uncommon for freshmen lawmakers of all stripes to be star-struck as they met Lewis for the first time.
The leadership skills Lewis learned at the height of the civil rights movement lent themselves well to his roles in the Capitol. At the time of his death, he was the senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party, and a member of the House Ways & Means Committee. In 2016, in the aftermath of a shooting at an Orlando night club that left 49 dead, he led his colleagues in a 25-hour sit-in to force Republicans, who controlled the chamber at the time, to vote on gun control after lawmakers had been dismissed. “The American people are demanding action,” he said at the time. “Do we have the raw courage to make at least a down payment on ending gun violence in America?”
Lewis’ leadership also displayed itself prominently off the floor. For years, he accompanied politicians from both sides of the aisle to Selma to ensure the power of “Bloody Sunday” would remain in the public’s memory. And when Lewis spoke, his colleagues usually listened — even if his views and choices diverged from their own. In 2008, when Barack Obama’s candidacy was still a long shot, Lewis announced he was switching his endorsement and backing the Illinois Senator over Hillary Clinton. The move was seen as crucial to cementing Obama’s support among African American members of Congress, who would be key to his victory over Clinton.
Lewis reflected on the significance of Obama’s presidency in an interview with TIME before the 2009 inauguration. “When we were organizing voter-registration drives, going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought—I never dreamed—of the possibility that an African American would one day be elected President of the United States,” he said.
In 2010, Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Lewis was married for 44 years to Lillian Miles, who died in 2012. They have one son, John Miles.
Throughout his life and career, Lewis remained steadfast in his dedication to civil rights—and wrote eloquently about his worldview in an op-ed for TIME in 2018.
“I heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say on many occasions, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ I still believe we will get there,” he wrote in a quote he repeated while speaking out after the death of George Floyd. “We will redeem the soul of America, and in doing so we will inspire people around the world to stand up and speak out.”