John Lewis, Civil Rights Icon and Long-serving Congressman, Dies at 80

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File photo: U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 10, 2007.
File photo: U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 10, 2007.Credit: Lawrence Jackson / AP

WASHINGTON – John Lewis, a longtime member of Congress and a civil rights hero whose beating by Alabama state troopers in 1965 helped spur opposition to racial segregation, died on Friday night. He was 80.

Lewis passed away after a months-long battle with cancer. He 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 55 years ago.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed Lewis’ passing late Friday night, calling him “one of the greatest heroes of American history.”

“All of us were humbled to call Congressman Lewis a colleague, and are heartbroken by his passing,” Pelosi said. “May his memory be an inspiration that moves us all to, in the face of injustice, make ‘good trouble, necessary trouble.’”

>> Read more: How John Lewis became a hero for American Jews

For decades, he has been an ally of the American Jewish community, and a symbol of cooperation between U.S. Jews and the African American community in their battle for equality and justice.

Lewis wrote in his memoir, “Walking with the Wind”, published in the early 2000s, about the Jewish American leaders' ties with the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. He particularly described the cooperation with Rabbi Abraham Heschel, one of the most famous rabbis in the history of the U.S. and an early supporter of the movement.

The book depicts Heschel standing alongside leaders of the movement during the Selma march. “A biblical-looking man with a long, flowing white beard. There goes God!,” one civil rights activist shouted with excitement when he saw Heschel.   

“I’ve always felt an affinity with the Jewish community, ever since I was a boy growing up. As long as I could remember, I heard many white people in the South pronounce the word ‘Jew’ in the same way they used the term ‘nigger’, they would spit the word out, like a bad piece of food.

"There was a small department store in downtown Troy (the town where Lewis grew up) operated by a Jewish merchant, I remember how it stung me when I heard people say things about him - the same kind of things they said about us,” Lewis wrote in his book.

“I grew up studying Bible stories about the Jewish people, I identified with those stories. I felt a kinship with the children of Israel. I could see that their struggle was very similar to ours."

After first being elected to Congress in the 1980’s, Lewis developed a close relationship with the Jewish community in Atlanta, the center of his congressional district.

Lewis said in his book that the local Jewish community “was particularly interesting,” explaining that “the Jewish community in Atlanta is relatively small, but they are a significant factor in elections because they tend to turn out in higher numbers than most other segments of the population.”

During his years in Congress, Lewis won praise from prominent Jewish American organizations. In early 2017, when he had a public feud with U.S. President Donald Trump who described him as “all talk, no action”, several leading Jewish groups stood by Lewis, slamming Trump for going after the legendary civil rights leader.

While his relationship with the Jewish community remained strong throughout his years in Congress, Lewis did not shy away from criticizing the current right-wing government in Israel.

In 2015, he boycotted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress, as did most members of the Congressional Black Caucus, in protest of what they described as an undiplomatic and disrespectful attack on former President Barack Obama.

Lewis has also stated that although he opposed the BDS, the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement against Israel, he also rejected attempts to make such boycotts illegal, and emphasized that boycotts for political reasons were a protected form of speech.

After Lewis announced last year that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer — “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said — Jewish organizations praised him for his life-long commitment to civil rights, and equality. The Anti-Defamation League described him as “our nation’s moral compass” and the American Jewish Committee called him “a fighter for his entire life.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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