Who Was John Lewis, the Iconic Civil Rights Figure Who Passed Away at the Age of 80?

John Lewis was one of the great men who led the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s alongside Martin Luther King Jr

On Friday night in the US, the last great figure from the American Civil Rights movement that raged in the 1960s, Congressman John Lewis passed away at the age of 80. In times of highly fractious politics, Lewis was one man who was revered by both sides. With the Black Lives Matter movement raging across the USA, he was also someone people looked to for guidance.

Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, in Troy, Alabama. Growing up in the segregation-afflicted Southern USA, Lewis found inspiration in his youth from Martin Luther King Jr. At a very young age, he began to campaign against segregation.

Lewis sought to get admission into Troy State University in his home province, which, at that time, was not allowing any white students. In his first meeting with Dr. King, Lewis talked about his desire to become the first African-American to study at the institution. Eventually, though, he went to the Fisk University in Nashville as well as American Baptist Theological Seminary.

Lewis Passes Away at 80

John Lewis
John Lewis Wikimedia Commons

A key moment in his life came when he founded, along with others, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He rose to be its president in 1963. This propelled him to the frontline of the civil rights movement and made him a member of what came to be called the 'Big Six' – a group of top leaders of the movement.

It was these six big leaders that organized the seminal march on Washington in 1963. The famous 'I have a dream' speech of Dr. King was delivered at the culmination of this march. While everyone knows about this speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the speech that preceded it was given by John Lewis.

This speech too was memorable and very radical. It would have been even more so if the associates of Lewis had not got him to tone it down a bit. The departed leader said, "By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in an image of God and democracy."

'Bloody Sunday' Incident

John Lewis
John Lewis receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Obama Twitter

But an even more famous and painful moment of his young life was yet to come. In 1965, at 25 years of age, he led a march of 600 people in Selma, Alabama, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7. However, state troopers of Alabama unleashed a bloody assault on the protestors, and the leader himself was battered on his head and suffered a fractured skull.

The entire scene was captured on camera and was witnessed by people around the country and the world. The brutal attack on Lewis made him a household name in the USA. The event came to be known as 'Bloody Sunday.'

After his struggles for civil rights, he became a Congressman from Georgia in 1986 and continued his struggles through legislative means. He now fought not just for equality but also for things like more gun control. Lately, he also joined the Black Lives Matter protests before succumbing to pancreatic cancer. With him, the era of civil rights movement icons comes to an end.