CIVIL RIGHTS ICON JOHN LEWIS DIES

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - BY CALVIN WOOD­WARD AND DE­SIREE SEALS Con­tribut­ing: Lynn Sweet, As­so­ci­ated Press writer Michael War­ren.

AT­LANTA — John Lewis, a lion of the civil rights move­ment whose bloody beat­ing by Alabama state troop­ers in 1965 helped gal­va­nize op­po­si­tion to racial seg­re­ga­tion, and who went on to a long and cel­e­brated ca­reer in Congress, died. He was 80.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi con­firmed Lewis’ pass­ing late Fri­day night, call­ing him “one of the great­est he­roes of Amer­i­can his­tory” and “a ti­tan of the civil rights move­ment whose good­ness, faith and brav­ery trans­formed our na­tion.”

Lewis’s an­nounce­ment in late De­cem­ber 2019 that he had been di­ag­nosed with ad­vanced pan­cre­atic can­cer — “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said — in­spired trib­utes from both sides of the aisle, and an un­stated ac­cord that the likely pass­ing of this At­lanta Demo­crat would rep­re­sent the end of an era.

Lewis was the youngest and last sur­vivor of the Big Six civil rights ac­tivists, a group led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 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.

At age 25 — walk­ing at the head of the march with his hands tucked in the pock­ets of his tan over­coat — Lewis 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.

Within days, King led more marches in the state, and Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son soon was press­ing Congress to pass the Vot­ing

Rights Act. The bill be­came law later that year, re­mov­ing bar­ri­ers that had barred Blacks from vot­ing.

“John is an Amer­i­can hero who helped lead a move­ment and risked his life for our most fun­da­men­tal rights; he bears scars that at­test to his in­de­fati­ga­ble spirit and per­sis­tence,” House Ma­jor­ity Leader Steny Hoyer said af­ter Lewis an­nounced his can­cer di­ag­no­sis.

Lewis joined King and four other civil rights lead­ers in or­ga­niz­ing the 1963 March on Washington. He spoke to the vast crowd just be­fore King de­liv­ered his epochal “I Have a Dream” speech.

As a boy, Lewis wanted to be a min­is­ter, and prac­ticed his or­a­tory on the fam­ily chick­ens. De­nied a li­brary card be­cause of the color of his skin, he be­came an avid reader, and could cite ob­scure his­tor­i­cal dates and de­tails even in his later years. He was a teenager when he first heard King preach­ing on the ra­dio. They met when Lewis was seek­ing sup­port to be­come the first Black stu­dent at Alabama’s seg­re­gated Troy State Univer­sity.

He ul­ti­mately at­tended the Amer­i­can Bap­tist The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary and Fisk Univer­sity in Nashville, Ten­nessee. He be­gan or­ga­niz­ing sit-in demon­stra­tions at whites-only lunch coun­ters and vol­un­teer­ing as a Free­dom Rider, en­dur­ing beat­ings and ar­rests while trav­el­ing around the South to chal­lenge seg­re­ga­tion.

Lewis helped found the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Co­or­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee and was named its chair­man in 1963, mak­ing him one of the Big Six at a ten­der age. The oth­ers, in ad­di­tion to King, were Whit­ney Young of the Na­tional Ur­ban League; A. Philip Ran­dolph of the Ne­gro Amer­i­can La­bor Council; James L. Farmer Jr., of the Congress of Racial Equal­ity; and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP. All six met at the Roo­sevelt Ho­tel in New York to plan and an­nounce the March on Washington.

The huge demon­stra­tion gal­va­nized the move­ment, but suc­cess didn’t come quickly. Af­ter ex­ten­sive train­ing in non­vi­o­lent protest, Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Wil­liams led demon­stra­tors on a planned march of more than 50 miles from Selma to Mont­gomery, Alabama’s cap­i­tal, on March 7, 1965. A pha­lanx of po­lice blocked their exit from the Selma bridge.

Au­thor­i­ties shoved, then swung their trun­cheons, fired tear gas and charged on horse­back, send­ing many to the hos­pi­tal and hor­ri­fy­ing much of the na­tion. King re­turned with thou­sands, com­plet­ing the march to Mont­gomery be­fore the end of the month.

Lewis turned to pol­i­tics in 1981, when he was elected to the At­lanta City Council.

He won his seat in Congress in 1986 and spent much of his ca­reer in the mi­nor­ity. Af­ter Democrats won con­trol of the House in 2006, Lewis be­came his party’s se­nior deputy whip, a be­hind-the-scenes lead­er­ship post in which he helped keep the party uni­fied.

Lewis’ wife of four decades, Lil­lian Miles, died in 2012. They had one son, John Miles Lewis.

AP FILES

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., in 2007.

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