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Passing of an Icon: Georgia U.S. Rep. John Lewis dies at 80

State Democrats scramble to replace Lewis on November ballot before Monday deadline

♦By Rich Shumate,

ATLANTA (CFP) — During his long and illustrious life, John Lewis had a first-hand presence at some of the most pivotal moments of American history.

In 1960, as a student at Fisk University, he participated in protests to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville, and, a year later, became of the original “freedom riders,” risking his life to desegregate buses in the South.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia

By 1963, he had risen to a leadership position in the civil rights movement, as president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and, at just 23, was the youngest person to address the historic March on Washington, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

During the summer of 1964, he went to Mississippi to register black voters, part of the “Freedom Summer” to break the power of segregation in its most redoubtable citadel.

In 1965, baton-wielding state troopers fractured Lewis’s skull as as he tried to lead marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, a shocking scene captured on national television that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act.

In 1968, he was in Los Angeles working for the presidential campaign of U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy when Kennedy was gunned down after winning the California primary.

And in 2018, Lewis stood on the House floor and exhorted his colleagues to vote to impeach President Donald Trump: “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something.”

Lewis had eventually extended his activism into politics, winning a seat in the U.S. House in 1986 that he held for more than three decades, becoming known as the “conscience of Congress” — opposing military action, supporting gay rights, leading a sit-in for gun safety.

Through all the beatings and tragedies, and the twists and turns of political life, Lewis never wavered from the philosophy of non-violence — and never stopped advocating for equality.

Battling pancreatic cancer, he made his last public appearance in June at the dedication of a “Black Lives Matter” mural in Washington, the latest incarnation of the cause to which he had dedicated his adult life.

His death Friday in Atlanta marks the turning of a page — he was the last surviving speaker of the March on Washington, which galvanized the civil rights movement in the summer of 1963.

His death also opens up his seat representing Georgia’s 5th U.S. House District, which includes much of the city of Atlanta and suburbs to the south and west, and has set off an immediate search for his successor, even before his funeral takes place.

That’s because state law only gives the state Democratic Party until Monday afternoon to replace Lewis on the fall ballot. Party officials opened up an application process for the seat, with a Sunday evening deadline, with the state party executive committee making a final decision on Lewis’s replacement.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp will decide when to call special election to fill the remainder of Lewis’s current term, which could be held concurrently with the November vote.

Lewis’s first run for Congress, in 1977, was unsuccessful. In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council and launched a second congressional run in 1986, after the Democratic incumbent, Wyche Fowler, gave up the seat to run for the U.S. Senate.

Lewis faced tall odds in the Democratic primary against another civil rights icon, State Senator Julian Bond. But he narrowly defeated Bond in a runoff to win the nomination and then the 5th District seat.

He was re-elected 16 times, including six times without opposition; his closest race came in the Republican wave of 1994, when he still won by 38 points.

Lewis is survived by his son, John-Miles Lewis. His wife, Lillian, died in 2012.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.

A campaign is now underway in Lewis’s native Alabama to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in his honor.

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