John Robert Lewis, the son of sharecroppers who survived a brutal beating by police during a landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, to become a towering figure of the civil rights movement and a longtime US congressman, has died after a six-month battle with cancer. He was 80.
"It is with inconsolable grief and enduring sadness that we announce the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis," his family said in a statement. "He was honored and respected as the conscience of the US Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother. He was a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being. He dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America. He will be deeply missed."
Lewis died on the same day as civil rights leader the Rev. Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian, who was 95. The dual deaths of the civil rights icons come as the nation is still grappling with racial upheaval in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the nation.
It's another heartbreak in a year filled with them, as America mourns the deaths of nearly 140,000 Americans from Covid-19 and struggles to bring the virus under control.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced his death in a statement.
"Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history: Congressman John Lewis, the Conscience of the Congress," the California Democrat said.
"It sows the seeds of violence and destroys the hopes and dreams of people. The world is watching. They are shocked and dismayed because it seems we have lost our way as a nation, as a proud and great people."
"I know racism when I see it. I know racism when I feel it. And at the highest level of government, there's no room for racism," he said.
In July, he offered a forceful rebuke of Trump's racist tweets against four Democratic congresswomen of color.
In recent years, Lewis has drawn headlines for stirring up what he calls "good trouble" for his vocal opposition to Donald Trump - including voting to impeach the President.
A leader of a civil rights group called the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, he was one of the participants in the key 1965 civil rights protest pushing for voting rights from Selma to Alabama's capital, Montgomery. Lewis - who had his skull broken by white police officers during the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma - was, by his own count, arrested more than 40 times during his days of civil rights activism.
John Lewis represented Georgia's 5th Congressional District, which includes much of Atlanta, since first being elected in 1986.