Civil Rights hero John Lewis changed America making ‘good trouble’

A growing number of lawmakers from Washington to Georgia's Capitol support replacing a bust of the vice president of the Confederacy with one of the late Rep. John Lewis. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Civil Rights icon and longtime Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who advocated for change through nonviolence, died late Friday night at the age of 80.

The Atlanta Democrat was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in late December. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed his death, saying the country had lost “one of the greatest heroes of American history.” Lewis was often referred to as the conscience of Congress.

The Troy, Alabama native is best known nationally for the beating he endured at the hands of police in 1965 while leading hundreds in the Bloody Sunday march across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Images of the violence – and his beating, in particular – are often credited with spurring passage of the Voting Rights Act that same year.

Lewis was the youngest and last surviving member of the Big Six civil rights activists who led the fight to end legalized segregation and overturn Jim Crow laws. He was arrested dozens of times and also beaten as a Freedom Rider. He spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, sharing a stage with Martin Luther King Jr.

But back at home, he is also remembered for his joy – often expressed in the form of dance – and his unceasing activism and call for what he described as “good trouble.”

From a statement Lewis issued in May in response to the civil unrest that followed the death of George Floyd:

“To the rioters here in Atlanta and across the country:  I see you, and I hear you. I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness.  Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long.  Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive.

“History has proven time and again that non-violent, peaceful protest is the way to achieve the justice and equality that we all deserve,” he said. “Our work won’t be easy — nothing worth having ever is — but I strongly believe, as Dr. King once said, that while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.”

Lewis might have been one of the more liberal members of Congress, but he was not a strict partisan. When now-retired long-time Republican Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson stepped aside last year, Lewis paid tribute in a floor speech that he memorably concluded by saying “I will come over to meet you, brother” before walking over to hug Isakson.

The beloved congressman’s death quickly prompted tributes from both sides of the aisle.

“No one embodied the word ‘courage’ better than John Lewis,” Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue said in a statement. “As a civil rights icon, John inspired millions of Americans to fight injustice and reject the status quo. Without a doubt, his wisdom and resolve made the world a better place.”

Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, said the nation lost a giant.

“Congressman John Lewis was America’s greatest champion in the fight for justice and equality, and showed us all how to put the people first,” Williams said. “His legacy of Good Trouble will ring on in generations to follow, a guiding light for those continuing to march toward a more righteous future.”