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Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis dies

January 27, 2021 in History

By History.com Editors

On July 17, 2020, in the midst of a pandemic and a time of unparalleled racial tensions in the United States, the nation loses one of the last towering figures of the civil rights movement. John Lewis, former Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and a 17-term congressman from Georgia’s Fifth District, dies at the age of 80.

Born to two sharecroppers in rural Alabama, Lewis preached his first sermon at the age of 15, met Martin Luther King, Jr. at the age of 18, and was ordained as a Baptist minister before attending college at Nashville’s Fisk University. Inspired by King, he quickly became a leader of the Nashville desegregation movement, organizing sit-ins and boycotts—which he called “good trouble, necessary trouble”—and getting arrested numerous times.

READ MORE: ‘Good Trouble’: How John Lewis and Other Civil Rights Crusaders Expected Arrests

Lewis was one of the very first Freedom Riders—activists who refused to follow the rules while traveling through the South on segregated buses—and made repeated Freedom Rides despite being badly beaten and arrested on multiple occasions. After becoming Chairman of SNCC, of which he was a founding member, in 1963, he took a leading role in organizing a number of civil rights actions, including the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery marches. During the latter march, a policeman fractured Lewis’ skull as law enforcement attacked a group of protesters crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The assault, dubbed “Bloody Sunday,” opened the eyes of many across America to the brutal behavior of police in the South. In the years since, many have suggested renaming the bridge after Lewis.

Lewis continued to work in voter education and community organizing until 1981, when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. In 1986, he ran for Congress, where he would represent a district that included most of Atlanta for the rest of his life. Though sometimes referred to as a “partisan” Democrat, he often took positions that set him to the left of the party’s establishment. Lewis was an early advocate of gay rights, opposed both the Gulf War and the War in Iraq, sided against the popular Democratic President Bill Clinton on welfare reform and the North America Free Trade …read more

Source: HISTORY

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