U.S. Rep. John Lewis, right, and former Atlanta Hawks player Dominique Wilkins during the pack 1 million meals event at State Farm Arena, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp
Photo: Branden Camp

As Congressman John Lewis turns 80, his friends celebrate his courage

In his eight decades on earth, John Lewis has accomplished much.

He’s admired as a civil rights luminary, congressman, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

But, for all that he has achieved, his friends are using the occasion of his birthday to celebrate what they say has been a constant throughout his life — his courage.

“John has always had incredible determination, even when the odds were against him and there was no reason to expect a successful outcome,” said Bernard Lafayette, one of his oldest friends. “He never gave up the possibility of succeeding.”

Lewis turns 80 on Friday.

» PHOTOS: John Lewis Through the Years

» MORE: Five surprising moments from John Lewis’s youth

» FROM 1982: John Lewis, butting heads with the status quo

It’s an age that many of his civil rights contemporaries — Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmy Lee Jackson and Medgar Evers — never reached. At times, like when he was being beaten by Alabama state troopers on Edmund Pettus Bridge during a march for civil rights in 1965, he wondered if he would.

Now, he faces his most difficult challenge, stage IV pancreatic cancer.

Lewis announced his diagnosis on Dec. 29. Aside from a Jan. 9 vote on the House floor in favor of a resolution that would limit President Donald Trump’s ability to take further military action in Iran, Lewis has remained out of the spotlight, but has continued to cast votes.

He didn’t attend the State of the Union, which was no surprise, and it is unclear if he will attend the upcoming commemoration of that Bloody Sunday march in Selma.

Lewis’ office does not comment on his medical condition.

Lafayette recently called his old college roommate to check up on him.

“I didn’t want to keep him on the phone for too long, but there was absolutely no weakness in his voice. He sounded just as strong and determined as ever,” Lafayette said. “He said he was going to try to be in Selma.”

Xernona Clayton, who has been friends with Lewis since the 1960s, had been in the early stages of planning a birthday party for Lewis. She realized she would have to postpone the event because he is not scheduled to be in Atlanta this weekend. He is being treated in Washington, D.C.

“Everybody loves John Lewis,” said Clayton. “And everybody agrees that John Lewis does not make any distinctive difference between people. He loves black people, white people, tall people, short people. Everybody knows that John Lewis has no prejudices and that each of us is a product of God’s creation.”

On the day he made his cancer diagnosis public, Clayton went to see him. “The two of us embraced and talked about the challenges,” Clayton said. “I said you have had challenges. Your faith is strong enough to meet this one. He said he will face this battle with courage.”

First elected to the U.S. House in 1986, after making his mark in the civil rights movement, Lewis has no plans to retire and will seek re-election in November.

Xernona Clayton, who has been friends with Lewis since the 1960s, had planned a birthday party for Lewis but postponed the even when she realized that he would be staying in Washington, D.C. for his treatment. “Everybody loves John Lewis,” she said. “And everybody agrees that John Lewis does not make any distinctive difference between people. He loves black people, white people, tall people, short people. Everybody knows that John Lewis has no prejudices and that each of us is a product of God’s creation.” (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell said he is not surprised that his friend is not looking to retire, adding that “no one fights harder than John Lewis.”

“John Lewis has been a part of changing America since he was a teenager, and he is not as appreciated as he should be. Everything that he has done has moved this country forward,” Campbell said. “He is the architect of modern America.”

Sherry Frank plans to reach out to Lewis on his birthday. The president of the Atlanta section of the National Council of Jewish Women first met Lewis in 1980, when she was executive director of the American Jewish Commission.

They were bonded by another birthday. Their sons were both born on May 24, 1976. They often held parties together.

And she has another one planned.

She is working on a March 28 party and re-election fund-raising gala at The Tabernacle.

“I talk to him regularly, and he sounds good and positive,” Frank said. “He is just the most human human being I know. I think he walks on water. John can fight anything, and he can beat this.”

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