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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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Georgia U.S. Rep. John Lewis diagnosed with pancreatic cancer

Atlanta Democrat tells constituents, “I am going to fight it.”

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

ATLANTA (CFP) — U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the dean of Georgia’s congressional delegation and an icon of the civil rights movement, has been diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer, a disease which has a very low survival rate.

Lewis announced his cancer diagnosis in a news release from his office. He said the cancer was detected during a routine exam earlier in December.

“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,” Lewis said. “So I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it.”

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

Lewis said his cancer is Stage 4, which means that it is has spread to other organs outside the pancreas. The five-year survival rate for Stage 4 pancreatic cancer is just 3 percent, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Lewis said he plans to return to Washington and begin treatment while continuing to serve in Congress.

“I may miss a few votes during this period, but with God’s grace I will be back on the front lines soon,” he said.

Lewis, 79, has represented the Atlanta-based 5th District since 1987, routinely winning re-election with little opposition from the Peach State’s most Democratic district.

During the 1960s, as student leader in the civil rights movement, Lewis was among the first Freedom Riders who desegregated interstate bus transportation, and he also helped coordinate the 1963 March on Washington.

In 1965, Lewis was beaten and seriously injured while leading a group of marchers in Selma, Alabama, an event that helped spur passage of the Voting Rights Act.

News of Lewis’s cancer diagnosis prompted a bipartisan outpouring of support on Twitter.

“John, know that generations of Americans have you in their thoughts & prayers as you face this fight,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Georgia GOP Rep. Doug Collins called Lewis “a hero to Georgians and all Americans, including me. My respect and prayers are with this fighter as he faces a new battle.”

“John has never backed down from a fight, and I know he will battle cancer with the same courage and toughness he has always demonstrated,”said House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

Former President Barack Obama said “if there’s one thing I love about @RepJohnLewis, it’s his incomparable will to fight. I know he’s got a lot more of that left in him. Praying for you, my friend.”

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