John Lewis, towering civil rights figure, dies aged 80

His death was confirmed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a statement on Friday night

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

Lewis' death was confirmed by a House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a statement on Friday night.

Lewis was the last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, led by the Rev Martin Luther King Jr.

He was best known for leading 600 protesters in the 1965 Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Lewis was knocked to the ground and beaten by state troopers. Televised images forced the country's attention on racial oppression. A Democrat from Atlanta, he won his US House seat in 1986.

"Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of the 17-term congressman from Georgia.

She described Lewis, who in late 2019 was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, as "a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation."

The son of sharecroppers, Lewis was just 21 when he became a founding member of the Freedom Riders, who fought segregation of the US transportation system in the early 1960s, eventually becoming one of the nation's most powerful voices for justice and equality.

He was the youngest leader of the 1963 March on Washington, in which King delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech.

Two years later Lewis nearly died while leading hundreds of marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on a peace march to Montgomery when state troopers, seeking to intimidate those demonstrating for voting rights for black Americans, attacked protesters.

Lewis suffered a fractured skull on the day that would become known as "Bloody Sunday." Fifty years later in 2015, he walked across the bridge arm in arm with Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, to mark the anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march.

Lewis first entered Congress in 1986 and quickly became a figure of moral authority, with Pelosi labeling him "the conscience of the Congress."

Tributes poured in from Democrats and Republicans alike.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the chamber's Republican leader, hailed Lewis as "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."

Lewis had stepped away from his congressional duties in recent months as he underwent treatment for cancer.

But he returned to Washington in early June, in the midst of fiery demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, to walk in Black Lives Matter Plaza, the renamed intersection near the White House that was the site of protests against injustice.

Updated: July 18, 2020 10:57 AM


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