In his memoir, Lewis said Alabama’s “Bloody Sunday” was a strange day from the get-go. “It was somber and subdued, almost like a funeral procession,” he wrote in “Walking With the Wind“ of the march he led with Hosea Williams. “There were no big names up front, no celebrities. This was just plain folks moving through the streets of Selma.”
Calling him “a personal hero,” Sen. John McCain described Lewis‘ actions that day as exemplary of America’s most basic dreams.
“In America, we have always believed that if the day was a disappointment, we would win tomorrow,” McCain wrote in 2018‘s “The Restless Wave.” “That’s what John Lewis believed when he marched across this bridge.”
The footage of the beatings that day in Alabama pushed President Lyndon B. Johnson to action on civil rights legislation. “Something about that day in Selma touched a nerve deeper than anything that had come before,” Lewis later wrote.
After Selma and with each passing month, SNCC became more militant. The organization grew to reflect the disappointment of those who saw progress as coming too slow. “Something was born in Selma, but something died there, too,” Lewis wrote in “Walking With the Wind.” “The road of nonviolence had essentially run out.” (King’s assassination in 1968 was another devastating blow against those advocating nonviolence.)
In 1966, Lewis lost the chairmanship to Stokely Carmichael, champion of the slogan “Black Power.” “My life, my identity, most of my very existence, was tied to SNCC,” Lewis recalled in “Walking With the Wind.” “Now, so suddenly, I felt put out to pasture.”
In 1968, he worked on the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. On the night of the California primary, he was with the campaign at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Kennedy was shot and killed by Sirhan Sirhan.
Lewis moved on to the Voter Education Project in 1970, and in 1977 made his first stab at electoral politics, running unsuccessfully for a House seat in Georgia.
After a stint on Atlanta’s City Council, he tried again for the House in 1986 and won, edging out fellow activist Julian Bond. He remained in the House after that, an ardent Democratic partisan but one who said that his mission never changed.
“My overarching duty,” Lewis wrote in 1998, “as I declared during that 1986 campaign and during every campaign since then, has been to uphold and apply to our entire society the principles which formed the foundation of the movement to which I have devoted my entire life.”
Lewis spent years pushing for a National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, introducing legislation every year until it finally passed in 2003. “Giving up on dreams is not an option for me,” he wrote when the museum opened in 2016.
Though not an author of much in the way of major legislation, some issues drew out his eloquence. In March 2010, in the final stages of the fierce debate over the Affordable Care Act, he fought for its passage. “This may be the most important vote that we cast as members of this body,” Lewis said. “We have a moral obligation today, tonight, to make health care a right and not a privilege.”
In 2016, he was one of the leaders of a unique sit-in on the House floor in support of gun-safety legislation. “Give us a vote. Let us vote. We came here to do our job,” he said. (The sit-in failed.)
As time passed, he came to be seen as the living embodiment of the civil rights movement.
Many awards came his way: a Lincoln Medal from Ford’s Theatre, a Preservation Hero award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center, a Dole Leadership Prize named for Bob Dole, and a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for lifetime achievement, among others. Stephan James portrayed him in the 2014 movie “Selma.” Universities showered him with honorary degrees. In 2016, the U.S. Navy announced that it was naming a ship, a replenishment oiler, after him.
During his congressional career, Lewis often led bipartisan delegations of lawmakers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to reenact the Bloody Sunday march. Those members would come away from the trips vowing to work for a more equitable society, which gratified Lewis.
In 2013, he launched a trilogy titled “March,” graphic novels written with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell that chronicled the early decades of his life. In 2016, the third installment became the first graphic novel to win a National Book Award. “I grew up in rural Alabama — very, very poor with very few books in our home,” Lewis said in accepting the award.
The “March” books used the inauguration of Obama as a framing device. Lewis was initially a Hillary Clinton supporter in 2008, but Obama’s election shined a spotlight on Lewis. The new president signed a photograph to him: “Because of you, John.”
The Trump years were different. Lewis had sparred with Republicans before — even calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush — but the jousting with Trump escalated quickly. Saying he didn’t believe Trump was “a legitimate president,” Lewis announced he would not attend the inauguration.
Trump responded on Twitter. “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to … mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!,” he said.
Lewis remained a prominent foe of Trump. “I think he is a racist,” Lewis said of the president in January 2018.
Lewis’ cancer diagnosis at the end of 2019 led to an outpouring of support. “There is no more important New Year’s resolution, and it begins right now: pray for John Lewis,” tweeted NPR’s Scott Simon. On that day, Obama tweeted: “If there’s one thing I love about @RepJohnLewis, it’s his incomparable will to fight. I know he’s got a lot more of that left in him.“
In 2009, Lewis met with a white man named Elwin Wilson, who was among those who assaulted Lewis and other Freedom Riders in 1961. Following Obama’s election in 2008, Wilson said he had an epiphany and traveled to Washington to apologize for his violent acts and seek Lewis’ forgiveness. Lewis gave it freely.
“It’s in keeping with the philosophy of nonviolence,” Lewis later told the New York Times. “That’s what the movement was always about, to have the capacity to forgive and move toward reconciliation.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this article.