A native of Alabama, he rose out of the Nashville student movements and quickly became a key ally of Martin Luther King Jr. He was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963.
But his legacy within the movement was often marked by violence he faced. In 1961, he was beaten and bloodied as a Freedom Rider, and in 1965 he was beaten in the skull by a state trooper in Selma during what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and U.S. Rep. John Lewis embrace on the House floor during tributes from members of the Georgia delegation in honor of Isakson's retirement from Congress. Screen grab from U.S. House of Representatives livestream.
The attack spurred support throughout the nation and in Congress for what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In reflecting on that horrible day, Lewis would say: “I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die.”
He was first elected to the U.S. House in 1986, defeating Julian Bond in a bitter Democratic primary to become the second African-American to represent Georgia in Congress since Reconstruction.
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Since then, Lewis has been re-elected 16 times times without serious opposition in the heavily-Democratic district, often with huge margins of victory. He won another two-year term in 2018, facing no opposition.
One of the fiercest critics of President Donald Trump, Lewis' decision to boycott his inauguration in 2017 led the Republican to slam his Atlanta-based district as a "crime infested" area that's in "horrible shape."
Dubbed by allies as the "conscience of the House," Lewis was a key supporter of the impeachment of Trump, delivering a fiery speech in September arguing that delaying the proceedings would "betray the foundation of our democracy."
Pancreatic cancer is the nation's third leading cause of cancer deaths. Roughly three-quarters of people who develop the cancer die within a year of diagnosis, though new advances are showing signs of success.
Congressman John Lewis waves to the crowd as he makes his way down Peachtree Street during the 49th annual Pride Festival and Parade in Atlanta Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
In a statement, Lewis said new treatment options that are “no longer debilitating as they once were” have given him hope.
“So I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community,” he said. “We still have many bridges to cross.”
‘This country still needs him’
A chorus of national figures and local politicians across the aisle expressed support for Lewis - and offered prayers that he’ll defeat the disease.
State Sen. Nikema Williams, the chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, invoked one of Lewis’ favorite expressions in calling him a “hero of people across our world who are in the fight to make good trouble everywhere.”
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“I know that he will take on this fight just like he has for every other challenge: with strength, with purpose and with courage,” she said.
Gov. Brian Kemp was among many Republicans heaping praise on Lewis, who he said has “always been a fighter and I know he will approach this challenge the same way: with passion, grit, and determination.”
Lewis’ colleagues and friends in Washington and around the nation added their voices.
“If there’s anyone with the strength and courage to fight this, it’s you, John,” said former President Bill Clinton. “Hillary and I love you, and we join with millions of other Americans in praying for you and your family.”
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And U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that “generations of Americans have you in their thoughts and prayers as you face this fight. We are all praying that you are comfortable. We know that you will be well.”
Back home, Lewis’ longtime deputies were left reeling by the news but hopeful he would overcome. Tharon Johnson, a veteran Democratic strategist and aide to Lewis, he’s confident the congressman is “not going anywhere for a while longer.”
“I still need him. This country still needs him,” he said. “And if there’s anyone that can win this battle, it’s him.”