Praise for John Lewis Pours in From Nation’s Political Elite

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Mike Ives

Mr. Lewis, who died on Friday at 80, was instrumental in the historic struggle for racial equality in the United States. “He risked his life and his blood” for his country, former President Barack Obama said.

Representative John Lewis receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2011.
Representative John Lewis receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2011.Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — A giant. A legendary leader. A civil rights icon. A human saint.

Representative John Lewis — who addressed Americans from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when he was only 23, led one of the nation’s most famous civil rights marches and became known as the “conscience of the Congress” while representing the citizens of Georgia for more than three decades — had long been a singular figure in Washington.

As the news emerged late Friday that Mr. Lewis, 80, had died, bipartisan praise poured in, as friends, colleagues and admirers reached for the appropriate superlatives to sum up an extraordinary life.

“He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise,” former President Barack Obama, who often said he owed his political career in part to Mr. Lewis, wrote in a post on Medium. “And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.”

Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a joint statement that America had “lost a giant.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the entire Capitol would mourn: “All of us were humbled to call Congressman Lewis a colleague, and are heartbroken by his passing.”

The praise was hardly limited to Democrats. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, whose parents opposed segregation, recalled joining hands with Mr. Lewis as members of Congress sang “We Shall Overcome” at a ceremony in 2008 to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Dr. King famously said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’” Mr. McConnell said in a statement. “But progress is not automatic. Our great nation’s history has only bent towards justice because great men like John Lewis took it upon themselves to help bend it.”

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, was direct: “Marcelle and I are in tears,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to his wife.

Slight and generally soft-spoken, Mr. Lewis routinely led bipartisan congressional trips to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where he was beaten and bloodied as he fought for voting rights. As the last surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, he was for many people — and for African-American politicians in particular — a living link to a powerful and painful past.

“We have lost a legendary leader, civil rights icon and change agent extraordinaire,” tweeted Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, who is Black. Mr. Lewis, he added, had “altered the course of history and left America a much better place.”

“Congressman John Lewis was an American hero — a giant, whose shoulders upon many of us stand,” Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California and a former candidate for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination, said in a statement. Mike Espy, a former Democratic congressman and agriculture secretary who is running for Senate in Mississippi, called Mr. Lewis “a hero” as well as a “human saint.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, another former candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, echoed the sentiment.

“John Lewis was a true American hero and the moral compass of our nation,” she tweeted. “May his courage and conviction live on in all of us as we continue to make good trouble for justice and opportunity.”

In an increasingly polarized Washington, Mr. Lewis managed to gather — and maintain — admirers of all political stripes. Representative Justin Amash, independent of Michigan, who left the Republican Party last year, remembered Mr. Lewis on Twitter as “gentle and strong and kind.” Mr. Amash added: “His message was justice, and his voice was powerful. May his memory be eternal.”

Mr. Lewis’s personal history paralleled that of the civil rights movement. A son of sharecroppers, he grew up in dusty Troy, Ala., one of 10 children who picked cotton. He liked to tell the story of how he preached the Gospel to his chickens, often comparing that situation to his time in Congress. (At least the chickens listened to him, he liked to joke.)

His life took a turn when, at 18, he wrote to Dr. King. Mr. Lewis was studying at a Baptist seminary in Nashville, but was thinking about trying to integrate his hometown college, Troy State, now Troy University. Dr. King sent bus fare for Mr. Lewis to meet him in nearby Montgomery, Ala.

Mr. Lewis helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and helped organize the 1963 march, where he stood by Dr. King’s side, delivering a speech that was toned down from the one he intended to deliver.

“Our minds, souls and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all the people,” he said then.

Some of Mr. Lewis’s own colleagues grew up reading about him in their history books. Representative Ilhan Omar, a liberal Democrat from Minnesota and one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, was so overwhelmed when she met Mr. Lewis for the first time that she burst into tears. (This was not an uncommon occurrence for Mr. Lewis, and he often felt sheepish about it.)

“I said to him, ‘Sir, I read about you in middle school, and you’re here in the flesh, and I get to be your colleague,’” she said during a tearful interview shortly after her election in 2018.

On Twitter late Friday, Ms. Omar called Mr. Lewis a civil rights legend and a “moral voice for the whole nation,” and she reflected further on her interactions with him in Washington.

“He called me ‘daughter’ and would tell me how incredible it was for me to be in Congress and visit Africa with him as his colleague,” she wrote. “He never lost his youthful joy and passion for democracy.”

The congressman liked to talk about the need for “good trouble, necessary trouble,” and many online tributes alluded to his life philosophy.

“You did, indeed, fight the good fight and get into a lot of good trouble,” tweeted Bernice A. King, daughter of Dr. King. “You served God and humanity well.”

The writer John Hodgman also thanked the congressman for “making good trouble and the lifelong master class on why it works.”

Mr. Lewis’s death came less than a year after the death of another well-loved African-American congressman, Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland. It came, as well, in the thick of a deadly pandemic, in the middle of an election season, and at a time when the nation has been roiled by calls for racial justice — the very thing Mr. Lewis spent his life fighting for.

“This year has been relentless,” the writer Roxane Gay tweeted. “RIP John Lewis, an exemplar.”

Mr. Lewis announced in December that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and vowed to fight it with the same passion with which he fought for racial equality. He welcomed the recent demonstrations against systemic racism and against the police killings of Black people, seeing the protests as a continuation of his life’s work.

Michael Hardaway, a spokesman for Mr. Jeffries, the New York representative, said in an interview early Saturday morning that he had dropped by to see Mr. Lewis last year, and that they had spoken about social injustice on President Trump’s watch.

Mr. Lewis, Mr. Hardaway said, “was unworried.”

“He told me we will win,” he added. “And that young people will lead the way. The last thing he said was, ‘Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Be brave.’”

Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported from Washington, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong. Louis Lucero II contributed reporting from Cambridge, Mass.