John Lewis, the civil rights hero and US Democratic congressman, has died at the age of 80.
Lewis became a prominent leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. A founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he became its chair in 1963, and helped organise the March on Washighton, when Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
Lewis was the youngest and last survivor of the “Big Six” civil rights activists, a group led by King 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 in 1965.
He was walking at the head of the march with his hands tucked in the pockets of his overcoat when he 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.
Lewis was elected as the congressman for Georgia’s 5th district in 1987 and held the office until his death.
In December 2019 Lewis announced that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
"I have been in some kind of fight - for freedom, equality, basic human rights - for nearly my entire life," he said in a statement released at the time. "I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now."
During the civil rights movement, Lewis was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and then became its chairman from 1963 to 1966.
He co-organised and spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the rally at which Dr King delivered his historic I Have a Dream speech.
Lewis was the last surviving speaker from the march.
Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi confirmed Lewis's death in a statement posted on her website and on social media.
She wrote that Lewis "was a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation", and that as a congressman he was "revered and beloved on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Capitol".
"Every day of John Lewis's life was dedicated to bringing freedom and justice to all," she said. "As he declared 57 years ago during the March on Washington, standing in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial: 'Our minds, souls, and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all the people.'
"How fitting it is that even in the last weeks of his battle with cancer, John summoned the strength to visit the peaceful protests where the newest generation of Americans had poured into the streets to take up the unfinished work of racial justice."
Former president Barack Obama said Lewis “loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise”.
“I first met John when I was in law school, and I told him then that he was one of my heroes,” he said. “Years later, when I was elected a US senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders. When I was elected president of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made. And through all those years, he never stopped providing wisdom and encouragement to me and Michelle and our family. We will miss him dearly.
“It’s fitting that the last time John and I shared a public forum was at a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists who were helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“Afterwards, I spoke to him privately, and he could not have been prouder of their efforts… I told him that all those young people – of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation – they were his children. They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it.”
Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, paid tribute to Lewis, saying he had fought “the good fight”.
Former president Bill Clinton said Lewis “gave all he had to redeem America’s unmet promise of equality and justice for all” and “became the conscience of the nation”.