U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who battled on the front lines of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and then spent three decades “as the Conscience of the Congress,” died on Friday at age 80.
Though no official cause of death has been given, Lewis announced in December that he was receiving treatments for stage IV pancreatic cancer. He said he found out about the cancer during a routine medical examination.
Lewis had vowed to continue representing the 5th District of Georgia in Congress, saying he would fight the cancer like he fought for civil rights.
“While I am clear-eyed about the prognosis, doctors have told me that recent medical advances have made this type of cancer treatable in many cases, that treatment options are no longer as debilitating as they once were, and that I have a fighting chance,” he said.
On June 4, he told Gayle King on CBS This Morning that he felt like he was getting better. “I have a wonderful doctor and nurse, and everybody’s taking good care of me,” he said. “I’m very hopeful and very optimistic.”
Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive cancer that usually displays few early symptoms until the cancer is advanced. Because doctors rarely find pancreatic cancer in its early stages, it’s one of the most deadly cancers. In stage IV pancreatic cancer, the cancer has metastasized, or spread to distant organs.
About 9% of people with pancreatic cancer live at least 5 years after diagnosis. But the 5-year survival rate is much better — 34% — if it hasn’t spread past the pancreas. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Lewis had declined to publicize his personal course of treatment, but had recently been in hospice care in Atlanta.
Pancreatic cancer has been in the headlines this week. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is being treated for a recurrence and game show host Alex Trebek says he’s also fighting the cancer.
Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, outside of Troy, AL, where his parents were sharecroppers. Inspired by the Montgomery bus boycott led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis went to Fisk University in Nashville and organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.
Lewis threw himself into the civil rights struggle and became a confidante of King. He was one of the original Freedom Riders, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the youngest speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963.
In March 1965, Lewis and fellow civil rights leader Hosea Williams led peaceful protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, on what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” A brutal attack by Alabama state troopers was captured on film and helped convince Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lewis was badly injured that day.
Lewis was elected to Congress in 1986, representing Georgia’s 5th District, which includes much of Atlanta. In a statement announcing his death, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Lewis “a titan of the civil rights movement” and “the Conscience of the Congress.”
Tributes poured in from national leaders.
“I first met John when I was in law school, and I told him then that he was one of my heroes,” former President Barack Obama said. “Years later, when I was elected a U.S. Senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders. When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made.”
“He made an indelible mark on history through his quest to make our nation more just,” former President Jimmy Carter said. “John never shied away from what he called ‘good trouble’ to lead our nation on the path toward human and civil rights. Everything he did, he did in a spirit of love.”
“As a young man marching for equality in Selma, Alabama, John answered brutal violence with courageous hope,” former President George W. Bush said. “And throughout his career as a civil rights leader and public servant, he worked to make our country a more perfect union. America can best honor John’s memory by continuing his journey toward liberty and justice for all.”
Lewis’s family released this statement, according to WSB-TV in Atlanta .
“It is with inconsolable grief and enduring sadness that we announce the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis. He was honored and respected as the conscience of the US Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother. He was a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being. He dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America. He will be deeply missed.”