Rep. John Lewis dies at 80, losing battle with pancreatic cancer

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Rep. John Robert Lewis (D-Ga.) passed away Friday evening after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80.

Tributes began flooding into social media to say goodbye to the civil rights icon.

Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940, near Troy, Ala. to a sharecropper. Growing up on the family farm in Pike County, he became inspired by the then-burgeoning civil rights movement by events including the year-long Montgomery (Ala.) Bus Boycott, in which blacks protested segregated seating. He was also moved by the words and actions of the most iconic civil rights leader of the time — a young pastor named Martin Luther King Jr., who helped organize the boycott, which began after Rosa Parks was arrested and fined for refusing to give up her seat to a white man.

A mug shot of civil rights activist and politician John Lewis, following his arrest in Jackson, Mississippi for using a restroom reserved for ‘white’ people during the Freedom Ride demonstration against racial segregation, 24th May 1961. (Photo by Kypros/Getty Images)

While attending Fisk University, a private historically black college in Nashville, Lewis organized sit-ins to protest the segregated lunch counters at the institution. He volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rids bus tour in 1961 which challenged segregation laws all across the Deep South.

On several occasions, Lewis risked his well-being and even his life just for sitting in seats that were reserved for white riders. In addition, Lewis suffered beatings from angry mobs and endured arrests by police for challenging segregation.

SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

By 1963, at age 23, he was already being recognized as one of the Big Six leaders of the civil rights movement. And from 1963-66 he served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which helped organize student activism to include sit-ins and other forms of protests.

In 1963, Lewis became one of the architects of a historic march on Washington, D.C., and the following year he helped organize voter registration drives and other community activities during the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

On March 7, 1965, Lewis and another civil rights leader of the time, Hosea Williams, led some 600 orderly protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., intending to march from there to Montgomery to call for voting rights in the state. During their march, demonstrators were attacked by Alabama state troopers in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The event drew nationwide television coverage and outrage, leading to the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

“Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence,” said his congressional biography.

Lewis was appointed by then-President Jimmy Carter in 1977 to head up ACTION, a federal volunteer agency with more than a quarter-million members.

In 1981, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council, and in 1986 he was elected to the U.S. Congress to serve in Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. During his tenure, he rose to become senior whip for the Democrat Party as well as chairman of House committees and subcommittees.

Lewis earned a bachelor of arts degree in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University. He was also a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, also located in Nashville.

He was awarded more than 50 honorary degrees from a number of top colleges and universities around the country including Brown University, Princeton, Duke, Harvard, and Howard University.

Lewis has also received a number of awards from prestigious institutions including the highest civilian award in the U.S., the Medal of Freedom which he granted by President Barack Obama.

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Jon Dougherty

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