MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Civil rights icon John Lewis, whose life’s work to combat racial injustice began in the segregated South as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and original group of 13 Freedom Riders before leading him to the halls of Congress as a longtime Georgia congressman, died late Friday. He was 80.
A friend of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Lewis was an organizer of the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery and was among the marchers attacked by Alabama State Troopers. Decades later, his commemoration of the march would often include leading a congressional delegation to the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, which honors 40 martyrs of the civil rights movement.
SPLC President and Chief Executive Officer Margaret Huang issued the following statement:
“With extreme sorrow, the entire SPLC family mourns the passing of Congressman John Lewis. An Alabama native, he was a transformative figure. He was a hero, a man of extraordinary courage and a true American patriot.
“On May 4, 1961, the Freedom Riders boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., to travel through the Deep South after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia, which found segregation of interstate transportation, including bus terminals, unconstitutional. The future congressman was one of the brave Freedom Riders. When they arrived at Rock Hill, S.C., a few days later, 21-year-old Lewis was assaulted as he attempted to enter a whites-only waiting room. Before their ride ended, Lewis would be arrested in Birmingham and beaten in Montgomery, Alabama. His response to the assaults showed his strength of character and gave us a glimpse of the person he would become.
“Congressman Lewis was not only a valiant hero combatting Jim Crow, but he was also a leading figure in the movement for racial justice, pushing Congress and presidents to act with moral integrity against all forms of injustice. His dedication to racial equality and justice was unmatched, and we owe a debt of gratitude to his tireless work to achieve full equality.
“The SPLC will always cherish his support. Together with the American people, we celebrate the life of John Lewis and recommit to his call to get into ‘good trouble, necessary trouble,’ by standing up to injustice. He embodied the best all of us can become. In his own words, ‘You can do it. You must do it. Not just for yourselves but for generations yet unborn.’”