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John Lewis, congressman and civil rights icon, dies at 80

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Rep. John Robert Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights legend, died on Friday at his home in Atlanta. He was 80 years old.

Lewis’ death comes seven months after a routine medical visit revealed that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Congressional Black Caucus confirmed the news of his death.

“John Lewis was a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation – from the determination with which he met discrimination at lunch counters and on Freedom Rides, to the courage he showed as a young man facing down violence and death on Edmund Pettus Bridge, to the moral leadership he brought to the Congress for more than 30 years,” said Pelosi in a statement.

Born on February 21, 1940 to sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, Lewis attended segregated public schools and counted the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s radio broadcasts as inspiration for his work as an activist.

During the 1960s, Lewis took on an important role during civil rights movement.

In 1961, he participated in a series of demonstrations that became known as the Freedom Rides, in which he and other activists — Black and white — rode together in buses through the South to challenge the region’s lack of enforcing a Supreme Court ruling that deemed segregated public bus rides unconstitutional. Upon stopping, the activists on these rides often were arrested or beaten, including Lewis.

In 1965, he led hundreds of protesters in the “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. During the march, Lewis was knocked to the ground and brutally beaten by police where he suffered a skull fracture which scarred his head for the rest of his life.

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

Often referred to as the “conscience of the U.S. Congress,” Lewis turned to politics in 1981, when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. He won a seat in Congress in 1986 and has spent much of his career in the minority.

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime of advocacy and activism.

By Benjamin Siu and Candice Williams
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