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File photo of Rep. John Lewis on 26 July 2016 File photo of Rep. John Lewis on 26 July 2016 

John Lewis: US civil rights leader dies ahead of Mandela Day

US Congressman John Robert Lewis, the last surviving speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, has died at the age of 80, just a day ahead of Nelson Mandela Day.

By Devin Watkins

A pioneer of the United States civil rights movement, John Lewis co-organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at that historic rally.

Lewis also helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), later serving as its chairman from 1963 to 1966.

He was elected to the House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district in 1987, and remained in office until his death on Friday, 17 July.

A member of the Democratic Party, Lewis represented much of the city of Atlanta.

Fight of his life

Lewis revealed in December 2019 that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

Announcing the news, he said, “I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight like the one I have now.”

Saw fruits of own legacy

Tributes have poured in for his passing.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington DC tweeted that Lewis and CR Vivian, a civil rights leader who also died on Friday, "helped our nation realize our calling to be a home for justice for all people. They served our country in many ways - always with valor and hope. May God grant them rest."

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, called him “a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith, and bravery transformed our nation.”

Former US President Barack Obama described a recent conversation with him. He said Lewis expressed pride for the efforts of activists following the death of George Floyd, calling them “a new generation standing up for freedom and equality.”

“Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did,” Obama said.

Lewis and Mandela

Lewis’s death came just on the eve of Nelson Mandela International Day – marked on Saturday – which celebrates another well-known civil rights leader.

Mandela led the charge against South Africa’s apartheid regime, which enforced a system of racial segregation and white privilege. He later served as the country’s president from 1994 to 1999.

When Mandela died in 2013, Rep. John Lewis lamented his passing.

“The whole of humanity has lost one of the most beloved, admired, and inspiring leaders of the last century,” Lewis said about Mandela. “He showed us that we each, despite our tribulation, have the power to forgive, that we can be reconciled with the worst offender… He taught us how to thrive as members of the human family.”

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18 July 2020, 11:27