John Lewis, US civil rights and Congress icon who built Jewish ties, dies at 80

Lawmaker and activist was beaten by state troopers at Selma, spoke to crowd at 1963 March on Washington; is eulogized by Bill Clinton as ‘conscience of the nation’

In this May 10, 2007 file photo, US Rep. John Lewis in his office on Capitol Hill, in Washington (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
In this May 10, 2007 file photo, US Rep. John Lewis in his office on Capitol Hill, in Washington (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

John Lewis, a lion of the civil rights movement whose bloody beating by Alabama state troopers in 1965 helped galvanize opposition to racial segregation, and who went on to a long and celebrated career in Congress, died. He was 80.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 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.’”

Former US president Bill Clinton said that 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. In so doing he became the conscience of the nation.”

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) speaks to a group of demonstrators outside of the Capitol building on July 7, 2016 in Washington, DC. Protesters gathered in Washington in response to protest the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (Zach Gibson/Getty Images/AFP)

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.

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.

State troopers swing billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Alabama March 7, 1965 (AP Photo)

Within days, King led more marches in the state, and president Lyndon Johnson soon was pressing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. The bill became law later that year, removing barriers that had barred Blacks from voting.

“John is an American hero who helped lead a movement and risked his life for our most fundamental rights; he bears scars that attest to his indefatigable spirit and persistence,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said after Lewis announced his cancer diagnosis.

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.

Leaders of the March on Washington stand with Sen. Everett Dirksen center right, during a visit to the Capitol on August 28, 1963. From left are Whitney Young, National Urban League; Martin Luther King Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Roy Wilkins, NAACP, behind King; Walter Reuther, United Auto Workers president; Dirksen and John Lewis, Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee. (AP Photo)

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.”

It was almost immediately, and forever, overshadowed by the words of King, the man who had inspired him to activism.

Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, outside the town of Troy, in Pike County, Alabama. He grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools.

As a boy, he wanted to be a minister, and practiced his oratory on the family chickens. Denied a library card because of the color of his skin, he became an avid reader, and could cite obscure historical dates and details even in his later years. He was a teenager when he first heard King preaching on the radio. They met when Lewis was seeking support to become the first Black student at Alabama’s segregated Troy State University.

Writer Calvin Trillin, center, interviewing John Lewis in Birmingham, Alabama, as the Freedom Riders were boarding the bus for Montgomery in 1961 (Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images via JTA)

He ultimately attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He began organizing sit-in demonstrations at whites-only lunch counters and volunteering as a Freedom Rider, enduring beatings and arrests while traveling around the South to challenge segregation.

Lewis helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was named its chairman in 1963, making him one of the Big Six at a tender age. The others, in addition to King, were Whitney Young of the National Urban League; A. Philip Randolph of the Negro American Labor Council; James L. Farmer Jr., of the Congress of Racial Equality; and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP. All six met at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York to plan and announce the March on Washington.

The huge demonstration galvanized the movement, but success didn’t come quickly. After extensive training in nonviolent protest, 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 Selma bridge.

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

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 minority. After Democrats won control of the House in 2006, Lewis became his party’s senior deputy whip, a behind-the-scenes leadership post in which he helped keep the party unified.

In this March 7, 2015, file photo, singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ US President Barack Obama, third from left, walks holding hands with Amelia Boynton, who was beaten during ‘Bloody Sunday,’ as they and the first family and others including Rep. John Lewis, left of Obama, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama for the 50th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday,’ a landmark event of the civil rights movement (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

In an early setback for Barack Obama’s 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Lewis endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination. Lewis switched when it became clear Obama had overwhelming Black support. Obama later honored Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and they marched hand in hand in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday attack.

Lewis has sought Jews as partners since his days helping to organize the 1963 March on Washington. He and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were among the leaders of the 1965 March on Selma, and a photo of the two men forming a vanguard with 10 others — including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — has become iconic.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right), marches at Selma with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. C.T. Vivian. (Courtesy of Susannah Heschel)

In 2012, speaking at an AJC event at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Lewis showed impatience with the schism that had developed between Blacks and Jews in subsequent decades over issues like affirmative action and Israel.

“If we know each other and understand each other, there would not be a schism,” Lewis said.

Lewis also worked for 15 years to gain approval for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Humble and unfailingly friendly, 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 Supreme Court later invalidated much of the law, and it became once again what it was in his youth, a work in progress.

Jewish groups over the years have rallied to Lewis’s causes — and to his defense. The Reform movement, the AJC and the ADL have joined Lewis in making protections for voting rights for minorities a top priority. And in 2017, when US President Donald Trump attacked Lewis on Twitter as “all talk and no action” after Lewis questioned the legitimacy of his election, all three shot back at the president.

“Wrong! His life has been all action & results. He changed US history,” the AJC said.

The ADL said in a tweet in response to Trump that: “everyone at @ADL_National is proud to call @RepJohnLewis an ally; a true #CivilRights hero whose lifelong fight ag #hate deserves respect…”

Lewis’s legitimacy among Jewish groups has made it hard for them to ignore his criticism. Lewis lent his sponsorship last year to a resolution opposing laws that penalize Israel boycotters — measures supported by both the AJC and the ADL. Lewis did so not because he embraces the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — he rejects it — but because boycotts were at the heart of the civil rights movement and he sees them as embodying speech freedoms.

US President Barack Obama, right, hugs US Representative John Lewis, one of the original marchers at Selma, during an event marking the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB)

In 2015, Lewis was a spokesman for African-American lawmakers who boycotted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in which Netanyahu vigorously opposed Obama’s efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. The lawmakers saw the speech as a slight against the first black president by then-House Speaker John Boehner, Republican-Ohio.

“I am saddened that the speaker would threaten this historic position, bipartisan support of our Israeli brothers and sisters, by this action,” Lewis said.

When the presidency of Trump challenged his civil rights legacy, Lewis made no effort to hide his pain.

Lewis refused to attend Trump’s inauguration, saying he didn’t consider him a “legitimate president” because Russians had conspired to get him elected. When Trump later complained about immigrants from “s—hole countries,” 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.”

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,” Lewis said in June, recalling the “good trouble” he got into protesting segregation as a young man.

“If we fail to do it, history will not be kind to us,” he shouted. “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 Trump, 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?” While the vote would be hard for some, he said: “We have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”

Lewis’ wife of four decades, Lillian Miles, died in 2012. They had one son, John Miles Lewis.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed
Register for free
and continue reading
Registering also lets you comment on articles and helps us improve your experience. It takes just a few seconds.
Already registered? Enter your email to sign in.
Please use the following structure:
Or Continue with
By registering you agree to the terms and conditions. Once registered, you’ll receive our Daily Edition email for free.
Register to continue
Or Continue with
Log in to continue
Sign in or Register
Or Continue with
check your email
Check your email
We sent an email to you at .
It has a link that will sign you in.