John Lewis, a pioneer of the civil rights movement and long-time member of the U.S. House of Representatives, died on Friday at age 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Lewis kept up the fight for civil rights and human rights until the end of his life, inspiring with others with calls to “never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
“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 said in a statement. “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.”
A son of sharecroppers and a protege of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis led sit-ins to integrate all-white lunch counters, was one of the original “Freedom Riders” who integrated buses, and suffered a skull fracture while demonstrating for Black voting rights in a savage beating by a nightstick-wielding white Alabama state trooper during an incident now called “Bloody Sunday.”
Lewis was just 18 when he first met King and was present at many of the civil rights movement’s seminal moments. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, hoping for a land where Black people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Lewis, the last surviving speaker who was present at that speech, maintained the fight for civil rights until the end of his life. In 2016, Lewis led a sit-in by House Democrats to demand a vote on gun regulations. Last year, Lewis led the House's efforts to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore portions of the Voting Rights Act that were gutted in a 2013 Supreme Court ruling. The Senate has yet to take up the bill.
Lewis made his last public appearance in June, as protests for racial justice swept the U.S. and the world. Using a cane, he walked with Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser on a street by the White House that Bowser renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza, which had just been dedicated with a large yellow mural — large enough to be seen from space — reading “Black Lives Matter.”
Sojourners president and founder Jim Wallis tweeted that “times with [Lewis] were among the greatest moments of many of our lives. He showed us the way again and again; and his truth will keep marching on.”
“Our nation and world lost a true hero,” said Adam Russell Taylor, executive director of Sojourners. “Congressman John Lewis spent a life well lived getting into ‘good trouble.’ I will forever be inspired by his courage and grateful for his tireless activism. Rest well.”
Lewis “spoke unflinchingly, stood unrelentingly, lived completely and died nobly” in the face on injustice, said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, in a statement. Barber quoted the words Lewis spoke at the 1963 March on Washington: “To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we must say that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually but we want to be free now.”
Artist and activist Bree Newsome, who earned national attention in 2015 for scaling the flagpole in front of the South Carolina state house to remove the Confederate flag, offered gratitude for Lewis’ lifelong work, but warned politicians against platitudes that ignore ongoing issues of racism today.
“I don’t want to hear politicians share their fave John Lewis quote,” she tweeted. “I want to know what they’ll do TODAY about police beating people in the street TODAY & the attack on voting rights that is happening TODAY & the racism that’s killing us TODAY.”
Lewis’ death immediately follows the death of fellow civil rights leader C.T. Vivian, who died early Friday morning.
“I’m finding myself in the deepest gratitude that John Lewis and CT Vivian got the chance to become elders,” tweeted activist and educator Brittany Packnett Cunningham. “To pass on the wisdom. To pray for us. Grow us. Lead us. They chose freedom work that easily shortens one’s life. And we got to keep them for a while. What a blessing.”
The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, presiding bishop and primate of The Episcopal Church, echoed the sentiment: “May John Lewis and C. T. Vivian Rest In God’s Peace,” he said in a tweet, “and may we, like them, rise up to claim the high call of love, never to cease laboring for a just and humane society and world, always showing compassion, and daily living humbly with God until all God’s children are free.”
Reuters reporting contributed to this story.