Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis dies at age 80

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia died late Friday at the age of 80.

He was a civil rights icon and served in the House of Representatives since 1987. A lifelong champion of desegregation, Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activists who rode interstate buses through the South to demonstrate against segregated bus terminals.

He was also the last surviving speaker of the 1963 March on Washington. Lewis rose to national prominence on March 7, 1965, when he led over 600 peaceful protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

The day became known as "Bloody Sunday" after Alabama state troopers violently subdued the demonstrators with tear gas and batons when they reached the end of the bridge. Lewis suffered a fractured skull as a result of the attack.

Throughout his tenure in Congress, Lewis became one of the most progressive lawmakers to represent a southern district and developed a reputation for stirring up what he referred to as "good trouble."

"I was inspired to get in trouble. I was inspired to get in the way," Lewis said during a commencement address to Bates College's Class of 2016. He added that Martin Luther King Jr. inspired him to "stand up, to speak up, and speak out."

"And I got in the way, I got in trouble," Lewis said. "Good trouble, necessary trouble."

"You have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, when you leave here, to go out and seek justice for all," he added. "You can do it. You must do it."

Lewis revealed that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in a statement in December 2019.

In the statement, he said he learned about his diagnosis during a routine medical visit that month. He added that he would continue to serve his constituents in Georgia's 5th Congressional District while undergoing treatment.

Activists, lawmakers, journalists, and other prominent figures expressed deep sadness and paid tribute to Lewis after news of his death broke on Friday.

"John Lewis was an American treasure," wrote Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of Martin Luther King, Jr. "He gave a voice to the voiceless, and he reminded each of us that the most powerful nonviolent tool is the vote. Our hearts feel empty without our friend, but we find comfort knowing that he is free at last."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote that the late congressman "was a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation. Every day of his life was dedicated to bringing freedom and justice to all."

Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a joint statement mourning Lewis' death.

"We have lost a giant" they said. "John 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."

Throughout his life, Lewis "was always 'walking with the wind,' steered by a moral compass that told him when to make good trouble and when to heal troubled waters," the Clintons' statement continued. "Always true to his word, his faith, and his principles, John Lewis became the conscience of the nation."

Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar said Lewis was "a giant" and "a civil rights legend."

"A leader in the halls of Congress," she wrote on Twitter. "And a moral voice for the whole nation. Having the opportunity to serve with him was one of the great honors of my life."

"A light has gone out of the world tonight," tweeted Virginia Rep. Don Beyer. "The grief of losing this great soul is beyond words. But we have been greatly blessed — our world is so much better for having had John Lewis in it."

"The news hits deep," tweeted the veteran reporter Dan Rather. "And to the core. John Lewis dead. Can it really be? He had strength, courage, and heart enough for many lifetimes. We were young once. So many memories. So much distance traveled. So much further to go. Farewell my friend. We shall overcome someday."