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

Louisiana officials praise Lewis, who died Friday at age 80

U.S. Rep. John 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. 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 Georgia 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, Ala., 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 in Georgia 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, from politicians across the country and in Louisiana.

“Congressman Lewis blessed our nation with his endearing presence and through his unwavering commitment to peace, justice, and equality for all,”  Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, wrote in a Saturday press release. “While I struggle to accept this loss, we should all be heartened by the far-reaching impact of his voice, activism, and sacrifices throughout his lifetime of service.” Richmond called Lewis “a leader amongst leaders” and praised Lewis’ commitment to getting into “good trouble.”

House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, who represents a part of New Orleans and many of its suburbs, released a statement calling Lewis “a legend who helped pave the way for so many of the victories achieved throughout the civil rights movement” and Louisiana’s junior senator,  Republican John Kennedy wrote, “John Lewis made America better. He believed in, and espoused in word and deed, the ideal of America as a color-blind meritocracy.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, called Lewis “an icon of the American Civil Rights Movement (who) dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties. Edwards ordered that the U.S. flag and Louisiana flag be flown at half-staff over the State Capitol Monday.