John Lewis faced dozens of beatings, taunts and arrests throughout his life. But he overcame every challenge that came his way and continued to fight for Black lives, creating new possibilities for generations that came after him.
It was the kind of loss that was immediately felt by the generations of people who have been impacted by the sacrifices Lewis has made throughout his life. Americans everywhere quickly flooded social media on Friday night, paying tribute to the social justice champion and longtime congressman from Georgia.
"John Lewis — one of the original Freedom Riders, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Member of Congress representing the people of Georgia for 33 years — not only assumed that responsibility, he made it his life’s work," the former president wrote.
Lewis risked his life countless times in his lifelong fight against racism. That was especially evident during the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama when the civil rights leader was almost beaten to death by Alabama state troopers while demonstrating with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and hundreds of other Black citizens demanding the right to vote.
"Through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example," Obama wrote.
Obama has expressed his gratitude for Lewis on a number of occasions, including the time the two icons came together during his historic presidential inauguration in 2009.
"I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made," Obama said. "And through all those years, he never stopped providing wisdom and encouragement to me and Michelle and our family. We will miss him dearly."
Many more prominent figures paid their respect to the civil rights leader. NBA All-star Chris Paul, who is always speaking up for social justice, thanked Lewis for paving the way.
— Chris Paul (@CP3) July 18, 2020
Sen. Elizabeth Warren described Lewis as a"true American hero" and "the moral compass of our nation."
John Lewis was a true American hero and the moral compass of our nation. May his courage and conviction live on in all of us as we continue to make good trouble for justice and opportunity.
Rest in power, John.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) July 18, 2020
“John Lewis was a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation – from the determination with which he met discrimination at lunch counters and on Freedom Rides, to the courage he showed as a young man facing down violence and death on Edmund Pettus Bridge, to the moral leadership he brought to the Congress for more than 30 years," Pelosi stated.
Teenage tennis sensation Coco Gauff showed her awareness of history, thanking Lewis for his legacy and leadership.
Thank you for your legacy and leadership. Rest in Peace Mr. John Lewis. pic.twitter.com/l1pkvEkHbw
— Coco Gauff (@CocoGauff) July 18, 2020
According to Politico, Lewis was the youngest leader of the 1963 March on Washington. He also served in various other capacities — he was a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the original Freedom Riders in 1961 and almost lost his life during the 1965 march in Selma.
In his memoir, Walking With the Wind, Lewis described "Bloody Sunday" as "somber and subdued, almost like a funeral procession.”
“There were no big names up front, no celebrities. This was just plain folks moving through the streets of Selma,” he wrote.
Born in Troy, Alabama, on Feb. 21, 1940, John Lewis was the son of Eddie and Willie Mae Lewis and was one of 10 children. He aspired to be a preacher at a young age and also wanted to make a difference in his community.
One of the defining moments of Lewis' teenage years came when he went to the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, where he met Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That's also where he met other individuals who would become giants in the civil rights movement. Those figures included Diane Nash, James Bevel, Jim Lawson, Bernard Lafayette and C.T. Vivian, who died on the same day as Lewis at the age of 95.
Lewis' work as an activist started taking shape when he participated in sit-ins at lunch counters, movie theaters and other establishments.
While traveling with the first Freedom Riders in 1961, Lewis was brutally beaten and jailed. But the sacrifice paid off when the Freedom Riders achieved their goal of integrating the buses.
The civil rights icon was arrested at least 45 times during his lifetime, according to the Smithsonian Magazine. One of the most recent arrests came in 2013, when Lewis and other members of Congress were detained at an immigration rally, PBS reported. All the sacrifice was part of what Lewis described as "good trouble."
Americans and people around the world who have been inspired by the sacrifice of Lewis continued to show their appreciation after his death.
"John Lewis gave so much of his time and wisdom to young people like me – his work will continue for generations as we aspire every day to live up to his legacy," Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai wrote.
John Lewis gave so much of his time and wisdom to young people like me – his work will continue for generations as we aspire every day to live up to his legacy. #ThankYouJohnLewis
— Malala (@Malala) July 18, 2020
Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar expressed her appreciation for being able to serve in Congress with the civil rights legend.
John Lewis was a giant.
A civil rights legend.
A leader in the halls of Congress.
And a moral voice for the whole nation.
Having the opportunity to serve with him was one of the great honors of my life. pic.twitter.com/b3YJh404YH
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) July 18, 2020
Presidential candidate Joe Biden described Lewis as "a moral compass who always knew where to point us and which direction to march."
We are made in the image of God, and then there is John Lewis. He was truly one-of-a-kind, a moral compass who always knew where to point us and which direction to march. To John’s family, friends, staff, and constituents, Jill and I send you our love and prayers.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) July 18, 2020
The death of Lewis also gave some people a chance to remind others to register to vote.
"If you’re not registered to vote, do so today in honor of John Lewis," comedian Wanda Sykes tweeted.
— Wanda Sykes (@iamwandasykes) July 18, 2020
Lewis worked on the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Two years later, he joined the Voter Education Project. In 1977, he was unsuccessful in running for a House seat in Georgia. But he succeeded in 1986 and remained in the House.
The congressman advocated for a National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, which opened in 2016. He was also passionate about supporting the the the Affordable Care Act and gun-safety legislation.
In 2011, Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.
"Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did," Obama wrote in his tribute. "And thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise."