John Lewis Dead at 80

A civil rights legend has passed.

NYT (“John Lewis, Towering Figure of Civil Rights Era, Dies at 80“):

Representative John Lewis, a son of sharecroppers and an apostle of nonviolence who was bloodied at Selma and across the Jim Crow South in the historic struggle for racial equality, and who then carried a mantle of moral authority into Congress, died on Friday. He was 80.

His death was confirmed in a statement by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Mr. Lewis, of Georgia, announced on Dec. 29 that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and vowed to fight it with the same passion with which he had battled racial injustice. “I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life,” he said.

On the front lines of the bloody campaign to end Jim Crow laws, with blows to his body and a fractured skull to prove it, Mr. Lewis was a valiant stalwart of the civil rights movement and the last surviving speaker at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

More than a half-century later, after the killing in May of George Floyd, a Black man in police custody in Minneapolis, Mr. Lewis welcomed the resulting global demonstrations against police killings of Black people and, more broadly, against systemic racism in many corners of society. He saw those protests as a continuation of his life’s work, though his illness had left him to watch from the sidelines.

“It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets — to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble,'” Mr. Lewis told “CBS This Morning” in June.

“This feels and looks so different,” he said of the Black Lives Matter movement, which drove the anti-racism demonstrations. “It is so much more massive and all inclusive.” He added, “There will be no turning back.”

WaPo (“John R. Lewis, front-line civil rights leader and eminence of Capitol Hill, dies at 80“):

John R. Lewis, a civil rights leader who preached nonviolence while enduring beatings and jailings during seminal front-line confrontations of the 1960s and later spent more than three decades in Congress defending the crucial gains he had helped achieve for people of color, has died. He was 80.

His death was announced in statements from his family and from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Advisers to senior Democratic leaders confirmed that he died July 17, but other details were not immediately available.

Mr. Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, announced his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer on Dec. 29 and said he planned to continue working amid treatment. “I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life,” he said in a statement. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”

His last public appearance came at Black Lives Matter Plaza with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on a Sunday morning in June, two days after taping a virtual town hall online with former president Barack Obama.

While Mr. Lewis was not a policy maven as a lawmaker, he served the role of conscience of the Democratic caucus on many matters. His reputation as keeper of the 1960s flame defined his career in Congress.

When President George H.W. Bush vetoed a bill easing requirements to bring employment discrimination suits in 1990, Mr. Lewis rallied support for its revival. It became law as the Civil Rights Act of 1991. It took a dozen years, but in 2003 he won authorization for construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall.

In 2012, when Rep. Paul C. Broun (R.-Ga.) proposed eliminating funding for one aspect of the Voting Rights Act, Mr. Lewis denounced the move as “shameful.” The amendment died.

Mr. Lewis’s final years in the House were marked by personal conflict with President Trump. Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Mr. Lewis said, rendered Trump’s victory “illegitimate.” He boycotted Trump’s inauguration. Later, during the House’s formal debate on whether to proceed with the impeachment process, Mr. Lewis had evinced no doubts: “For some, this vote might be hard,” he said on the House floor in December 2019. “But we have a mandate and a mission to be on the right side of history.”

Former President Barack Obama issued a statement on Lewis’ passing:

America is a constant work in progress. What gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further — to speak out for what’s right, to challenge an unjust status quo, and to imagine a better world.

John Lewis — one of the original Freedom Riders, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Member of Congress representing the people of Georgia for 33 years — not only assumed that responsibility, he made it his life’s work. He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise. 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.

Considering his enormous impact on the history of this country, what always struck those who met John was his gentleness and humility. Born into modest means in the heart of the Jim Crow South, he understood that he was just one of a long line of heroes in the struggle for racial justice. Early on, he embraced the principles of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience as the means to bring about real change in this country, understanding that such tactics had the power not only to change laws, but to change hearts and minds as well.

In so many ways, John’s life was exceptional. But he never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country might do. He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, a longing to do what’s right, a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect. And it’s because he saw the best in all of us that he will continue, even in his passing, to serve as a beacon in that long journey towards a more perfect union.

I first met John when I was in law school, and I told him then that he was one of my heroes. Years later, when I was elected a U.S. 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 — of a new generation standing up for freedom and equality, a new generation intent on voting and protecting the right to vote, a new generation running for political office. 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. They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they had heard of his courage only through history books.

Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did. And thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise.

Lewis lived to a ripe, old age and was one of the most admired men in American public life. He began his career marching so that men who looked like him could vote and wound up not only in Congress but seeing a Black man inaugurated President and awarding him our nation’s highest civilian honor.

That’s really quite remarkable.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Obituaries, Race and Politics, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:


  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Let’s hope somebody has the good sense to take trump’s phone away for the day.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Goodspeed John Lewis and thank you.

  4. CSK says:

    I’ll repeat what I said earlier today: He was a giant.

  5. JohnMcC says:

    The work of his life has shaped my life and thoughts as very few things could have done. I am deeply in debt to him and his partners.

    Thank you, Mr Lewis. Rest in peace.

  6. HarvardLaw92 says:

    A towering figure and irreplaceable part of our history, and a most righteous, honorable man. The country, and the world, is a darker place in his absence.

    Rest in well earned peace in full sight of the G-d you served all the days of of your life, sir. You will be missed.

    הַמָּקוֹם יְנַחֵם אֶתְכֶם בְּתוֹךְ שְׁאָר אֲבֵלֵי צִיּוֹן וִירוּשָׁלָיִם

  7. Jen says:

    Another giant gone. Thank you for everything, sir, and may you rest in peace.

  8. Barry says:

    James: “A civil rights legend has passed.”

    Me: “A civil rights *hero* has passed.

  9. CSK says:

    Maybe someone did. He hasn’t tweeted for 13 hours.

  10. Kathy says:

    A life well-lived.

  11. grumpy realist says:

    Condolences to his family and friends. He was a giant to look up to.

    If a man does not die while his name is still being spoken, John Lewis will be near-immortal.

  12. grumpy realist says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: (It does look like it’s a case of (golf) >> (Lewis). Ditto for Graham.)

    (And Republicans ask in all cluelessness “why won’t Blacks vote for us?” Maybe because you show how much lack of respect you have for them and their historical figures, twits?)

  13. SC_Birdflyte says:

    A quiet hero has left us and our government is less for his passing.

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    When great trees fall,

    rocks on distant hills shudder,

    lions hunker down

    in tall grasses,

    and even elephants

    lumber after safety.

    When great trees fall

    in forests,

    small things recoil into silence,

    their senses

    eroded beyond fear.

    When great souls die,

    the air around us becomes

    light, rare, sterile.

    We breathe, briefly.
    Our eyes, briefly,

    see with

    a hurtful clarity.

    Our memory, suddenly sharpened,


    gnaws on kind words


    promised walks

    never taken.

    Great souls die and

    our reality, bound to

    them, takes leave of us.

    Our souls,

    dependent upon their


    now shrink, wizened.

    Our minds, formed

    and informed by their

fall away.

    We are not so much maddened

    as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
    dark, cold


    And when great souls die,

    after a period peace blooms,

    slowly and always

    irregularly. Spaces fill

    with a kind of

    soothing electric vibration.

    Our senses, restored, never

    to be the same, whisper to us.

    They existed. They existed.

    We can be. Be and be

    better. For they existed.

    ― Maya Angelou

  15. Jim Brown 32 says:

    May God forever Bless his memory and multiply his righteous endeavors done on Earth.

  16. Moosebreath says:

    A giant of a man, whose presence will be sorely missed.

  17. MarkedMan says:

    There is a call to rename the Edmund Pettus bridge as the John Lewis Bridge. Curious, I looked up Edmund Pettus. It tells you all that you need to know about Alabama that the site of one of the most historic civil rights events in our nation is, to this very day, named for a Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan.

    History, my ass. White Alabamians only respect history when it is convenient to their bigotry.

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @MarkedMan: I am actually ambivalent on the proposal to change the name. Saying the “Edmund Pettus bridge” evokes an image for me, a sort of memory, one that people should never forget. Of course growing up in those times, it is not very surprising that I would think of that first. I rather doubt the name has the same impact on younger folks today, which is an argument in favor of the name change.

  19. CSK says:

    Kayleigh McEnany has tweeted that John Lewis was an “icon of the Civil Rights movement” who made “incredible contributions to our country.”

    The Washington Examiner says Trump ordered flags to fly at half-mast. He has not made any public statement. His helicopter dropped him off at his Virginia golf course at 9:15 this morning.

  20. Gustopher says:

    One of the greatest Americans. He will be missed.

  21. CSK says:

    Well, Trump bestirred himself to tweet about John Lewis, curtly and ungrammatically:
    “Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he (sic) and his family.”

    They send their prayers to he. Swell.

    Trump got in a round of golf in Virginia beforehand.

  22. grumpy realist says:

    Another goofed tribute.

    (After all, they all look alike, right?)

  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: Trump ordered flags to fly at half-mast

    For half a day.

    Mighty white of him.

  24. CSK says:

    Seriously? He couldn’t wait till after the funeral to raise them?

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: So tweeted some white house half wit. Sorry I can’t remember who or where I read it.

  26. An Interested Party says:

    When I think of John Lewis, I think of his humble origins and his preaching to the chickens…on another thread there is a discussion about empathy and who has it and who doesn’t…of course Lewis was full of empathy, no doubt largely shaped by his own background and upbringing…a wonderful human being…

  27. Monala says:

    @grumpy realist: several tweets responded with, “It was an honor to know and work with Mark Rubio”—with photos of Ted Cruz or Matt Gaetz.