John Lewis, biography of the historic civil rights leader who died aged 80

John Lewis was 80 years old and had cancer. He was the last surviving leader of the civil rights movement in the United States.

John Lewis was a fighter until the very end. “I’ve been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life,” he said recently. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now”. The civil rights activist was talking about his battle with pancreatic cancer, which led to his death on Friday the 17th of July.

Lewis was the last surviving civil rights activist among the Big Six, a group led by Martin Luther King Jr. that fought for the rights of African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. In recent years, he had expressed his support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

John Lewis: a lifelong battle for civil rights

Lewis, born in Alabama in 1940, was one of the first Freedom Riders, black activists who travelled on buses alongside white people to protest racial segregation. On Bloody Sunday in 1965, he led 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The demonstrators risked the lives to demand the right to vote, and they were attacked by police with truncheons and tear gas.

On the 28th of August 1963, speaking in front of an enormous crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C., Lewis introduced Martin Luther King before he gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

John Lewis
John Lewis’s footprints on the walk of fame for civil rights activists. He was a Democratic representative for Georgia in the US Congress © Elisabetta Scuri/LifeGate

The man, the politician

Lewis became a Democratic Congressman for Georgia in 1986. Since then, he hadd never lost his seat. For over fifty years he was a protagonist of America’s social and political history. A great leader of the African American community, from the time of Martin Luther King to Black Lives Matter.

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, remembered Lewis as “a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation”. Even as a Congressman, Lewis remained loyal to his ideals: in the 1990s he was arrested multiple times for protesting apartheid outside the South African embassy.

John Lewis
Black protesters marching in 1965 © William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images

From the Lincoln Memorial to Black Lives Matter

John Lewis took part in a personal, political, and cultural fight for the rights of black Americans that continued into the last years of his life. In June 2016 he took part in the symbolic occupation of Congress to demand gun control legislation. Lewis has also boycotted the current US President Donald Trump since his first day in office, even advocating for his impeachment.

Finally, over last few months Lewis was moved by the sight of young – “not just black” – Americans taking to the streets after the killing of George Floyd. “It made me cry. It’s a fight that goes on your whole life”. John Lewis’s battle ends here. But his beliefs keep on marching through the streets.

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