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John Lewis remembered by Birmingham-Area Leaders as an Icon, Hero 

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Rep. Terri Sewell and Rep. John Lewis served together in Congress and were good friends. Lewis died late Friday after a battle with cancer at age 80. (Terri Sewell/Facebook)
By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, Alabama Senator Doug Jones and U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama were among the hundreds of leaders who mourned the passing of Congressman John Lewis, the iconic Civil Rights leader from Alabama, who passed on Friday. He was 80.

“Rep. John Lewis, the conscience of Black America, has already given us our marching orders. It’s our duty to press onward. Rest well, hero,” tweeted Woodfin on Saturday.”

Sewell, who called Lewis a mentor, colleague and friend, said in a statement that Lewis was a beacon of light, hope and inspiration throughout his life. “To be in his presence was to experience love, whole-hearted and without exception,” said Sewell. “Though he was so often met with hatred, violence and racial terrorism, it never permeated his being. He remained until his passing a faithful servant-leader, whose righteousness, kindness and vision for a more equitable future inspired all who were blessed to know him.”

Jones said the congressman’s life “represented an unbroken thread from a painful past to a more hopeful future. He gave us all a reason to hope. More importantly, he gave us the courage to pursue the bright future we all want for our children.”

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.

The announcement of his death came just hours after the passing of the Rev. C.T. Vivian, another civil rights leader who died early Friday at 95.

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.

Many of those mourning Lewis said lawmakers need to begin the work to finish many of the causes pushed by the congressman.

“While John has left this earth, his legacy fighting for equality and justice lives on,” Sewell said. “I hope that our nation – and our leaders – will unite behind the cause most dear to John: voting rights. We must restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to its full strength so that every American – regardless of color – is able to make their voice heard at the ballot box.”

Jones said advocates for justice and equality “must face the challenges of this moment with the same grit and perseverance he embodied. We are charged with picking up the torch and continuing the fight for . . . that was his life’s work.  John was called the ‘conscience of Congress.’ May the conscience of all in Congress and the Senate be awakened by his passing to finish John’s efforts to restore integrity to the Voting Rights Act.”

Lewis’s legacy will be forever remembered by his march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where state troopers beat Lewis and many of the protesters. Within days, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 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.

“On Bloody Sunday in 1965, John was confronted by Alabama state troopers and their dogs, but he was determined to fight for equality and justice, putting his own life on the line in the service of others and a vision for a brighter future,” Sewell said in her statement. “So many times did John cross bridges, insisting that our nation live up to the promises enshrined in our constitution. As he always said, he gave a little blood on Selma bridge, but he also bridged the gaps that so often divide our political parties, working every day for a more just America.

Alabama Roots

Lewis, “The Boy from Troy”, known as the conscience of the Congress, was born on Feb. 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.

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 (80 kilometers) 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.

Political Run

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 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 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.”

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

Associated Press contributed to this report.