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Congressman John Lewis, Civil Rights Icon, Dead At 80

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA)

Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), an icon in the fight for civil rights for decades, has died at the age of 80 after his battle with pancreatic cancer.

I’m careful not to write “passed away,” because Lewis never merely “passed” anything in his storied life.

The youngest of the Big Six civil rights activists, Lewis garnered national headlines after leading hundreds of protesters in the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965.

Knocked to the ground and beaten by Alabama state troopers, Lewis’s skull was fractured and images of the infamous moment were spread across the country, crystallizing the civil rights movement to such a degree the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed shortly thereafter.

The civil rights lion was elected to Congress over 20 years later representing his district in Atlanta, Georgia.

And from the New York Times:

Mr. Lewis led demonstrations against racially segregated restrooms, hotels, restaurants, public parks and swimming pools, and he rose up against other indignities of second-class citizenship. At nearly every turn he was beaten, spat upon or burned with cigarettes. He was tormented by white mobs and absorbed body blows from law enforcement.

Mr. Lewis was arrested 40 times from 1960 to 1966. He was repeatedly beaten senseless by Southern policemen and freelance hoodlums. During the Freedom Rides in 1961, he was left unconscious in a pool of his own blood outside the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Montgomery, Ala., after he and others were attacked by hundreds of white people. He spent countless days and nights in county jails and 31 days in Mississippi’s notoriously brutal Parchman Penitentiary.

Lewis didn’t restrict his battles to civil rights for Black Americans. He was also an early ally of the LGBTQ movement.

In 2003, he penned an op-ed for the Boston Globe arguing in favor of same-sex marriage long before others would come to embrace that call.

We are now at such a crossroads over same-sex couples’ freedom to marry. It is time to say forthrightly that the government’s exclusion of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters from civil marriage officially degrades them and their families. It denies them the basic human right to marry the person they love. It denies them numerous legal protections for their families.

This discrimination is wrong. We cannot keep turning our backs on gay and lesbian Americans. I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I’ve heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry.

In the 1990s, he voted against the heinous ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ which defined marriage as only between a man and a woman, and he stood with the pro-LGBTQ advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign. He also voiced his opposition to Georgia’s prohibition on adoption by LGBTQ people.

One of my favorite tributes was from Lewis’s friend and former UN ambassador, Andrew Young: “He didn’t convince you by his arguments. He convinced you by his life.”

People much more eloquent than I offered their tributes to Lewis.

Rest in power, John Lewis.

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