John Lewis, A Force In The Civil Rights Movement, Dead At 80 Lewis began his nearly 60-year career in public service leading sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the Jim Crow-era South. He went on to serve in Congress for more than three decades.
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Rep. John Lewis, A Force In The Civil Rights Movement, Dead At 80

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Rep. John Lewis, A Force In The Civil Rights Movement, Dead At 80

Rep. John Lewis, A Force In The Civil Rights Movement, Dead At 80

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

John Lewis has died a hero, a civil rights champion, a voice of conscience. The 80-year-old Georgia congressman had pancreatic cancer. As a young man in the Deep South, John Lewis was hit, kicked and beaten by white mobs and police and stood up for justice. NPR's Kelsey Snell has this remembrance.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: In Congress, it's common for lawmakers to deliver a floor speech to a room full of empty chairs and distracted colleagues. But Congressman John Lewis knew how to capture a moment.

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JOHN LEWIS: The time for silence and patience is long gone. We're calling on the leadership of the House to bring common-sense gun control legislation to the House floor. Give us a vote.

SNELL: That was Lewis in 2016 following the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. He was surrounded by more than a dozen Democrats as they launched a sit-in on the House floor to try to force votes on gun control. They failed, but members stayed for two days, causing what Lewis called good trouble.

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LEWIS: Mr. Speaker, where is the heart of this body? Where is our soul? Where is our moral leadership? Where is our courage?

SNELL: Lewis brought that kind of passion to every issue he touched, from gun control to health care and voting rights. His political style came from a foundation of faith. In a 2004 interview with the nonprofit Academy of Achievement, Lewis recalled how preaching to chickens on his family farm in Troy, Ala., prepared him for a life in Washington.

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LEWIS: I say now, when I look back on it, some of these chickens would bow their heads. Some of these chickens would shake their heads. They never quite said amen. They tended to listen me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today in the Congress. And some of those chickens were a little more productive. At least they produced eggs.

SNELL: That was well before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped change his trajectory.

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LEWIS: I was so inspired by Dr. King that in 1956, with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins - I was only 16 years old. We went down to the public library, trying to check out some books. And we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for colors.

SNELL: Lewis told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 2009 that he didn't set foot in that library again until 40 years later to sign copies of his own memoir. He said the 1956 experience set him on the course towards the civil rights movement.

While attending the American Baptist College in Nashville, Lewis studied the techniques of nonviolent protest. In the summer of 1961, he and other students protested at segregated lunch counters and later joined the famous Freedom Rides. By his early 20s, Lewis was the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And in 1963, he joined King as a speaker at the March on Washington.

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LEWIS: Those who have said, be patient and wait - we must say that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now.

SNELL: Lewis took action again two years later in 1965 in a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. In his interview with Fresh Air, Lewis remembered leading peaceful marchers onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge to protest for voter registration. There, they met the Alabama State Police.

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LEWIS: In less than a minute and a half, the major said, troopers advance. You saw these men putting on their gas masks. They came toward us, beating us with bull whips, nightsticks, driven us with horses and releasing the tear gas.

SNELL: It came to be known as Bloody Sunday. And news images from that day were fresh in the minds of lawmakers as the seminal Voting Rights Act became law that same year. Later, Lewis would make an annual pilgrimage to the bridge to honor that day. The event became a rite of passage for Democrats running for office, particularly in 2007 when then-Senator Barack Obama was running to become the nation's first African American president.

The pair repeated that walk several times. And in 2011, President Obama presented Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In his speech, Obama said Lewis had been asking himself two questions his entire life - if not us, then who? If not now, then when? Lewis told NPR the honor brought tears to his eyes.

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LEWIS: It's hard to believe that in a short time that we've come so far as a nation and as a people. When you look back to the year that Barack Obama was born 50 years ago, Black people and white people in the American South couldn't sit together on a bus, on a train, in a waiting room. And we changed that.

SNELL: Lewis remained strong in his convictions as politics changed. In recent years, he repeatedly clashed with President Trump. As the House prepared to vote to impeach Trump, Lewis compared the moment to other times when he chose to follow his sense of moral obligation.

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LEWIS: When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something. Our children and their children will ask us, what did you do? What did you say? For some, this vote may be hard, but we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.

SNELL: Less than two weeks later, he announced his diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. When it came to that final battle, Lewis returned to a mantra he repeated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 - to never stop fighting. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington.

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