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Politicians and activists praise Rep. John Lewis’s legacy of “good trouble”

Lewis “risked his life and his blood” for a more just United States, former President Barack Obama said.

Lewis, in a dark suit and blue tie, chants in a crowd of people, flanked by Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Rep Judy Chu. Behind them, other protesters shout, some of them carrying pink signs.
Rep. John Lewis protests the Trump administration’s family separation policy in 2018.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Tributes are pouring in from political leaders and activists following the news late Friday night that Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights leader, has died.

In tweets and public statements, Democratic and Republican lawmakers, as well as current and former colleagues in the civil rights movement, praised Lewis’s decades of activism — a lifelong project he often described as “good trouble.”

The son of sharecroppers, Lewis was only 23 years old when he spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. He was among the “Big Six” of the 1960s civil rights movement, a group led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that planned the march, and was its last surviving member.

He was among the protesters beaten by law enforcement during a 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, an incident that helped spur federal civil rights legislation, particularly the Voting Rights Act, passed later that year.

Described as “the conscience of Congress,” Lewis was elected to the body in 1986 as a Democrat in Atlanta. Over the course of his career, he opposed the Iraq War, protested for the rights of refugees and immigrants, and advocated for gun reform measures. Recently, he argued for President Donald Trump’s impeachment from the floor of the House of Representatives, and took part in anti-racism protests.

In December, Lewis announced he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. In a statement at the time, he said he would continue working for his district, writing, “We still have many bridges to cross.”

As news of his death spread on Friday night and into Saturday, leaders across the political spectrum referred to that legacy of fighting as they offered their condolences in public statements and on social media.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement that said Lewis’s colleagues in Congress were “heartbroken.”

“May his memory be an inspiration that moves us all to, in the face of injustice, make ‘good trouble, necessary trouble,’” she said.

Former President Barack Obama, who honored Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, praised the congressman’s commitment to nonviolence in a statement published Saturday.

Lewis “loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise,” Obama wrote. “And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.”

In a statement, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, called Lewis “truly a one-of-a-kind, a moral compass who always knew where to point us and which direction to march.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) praised Lewis’s lifelong commitment to collective activism, writing the lawmaker’s “courage helped transform this country.”

Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, ordered the flags of City Hall to be flown half-mast in Lewis’s honor, calling him “the most brave of giants” in a tweet.

Flags will similarly be lowered at the US Capitol in Lewis’s honor, and at the White House.

President Donald Trump had not yet issued a statement about Lewis on Saturday morning, but in a proclamation, Trump stated that the act was “a mark of respect for the memory and longstanding public service” of Lewis.

The proclamation means that all flags at public buildings, military posts, naval stations and vessels, and at all United States embassies, consulates, and facilities abroad, will remain at half-mast throughout Saturday.

Although Lewis was a lifelong Democrat, many Republicans, including some with whom Lewis had sparred in Congress — some who had opposed Lewis’s work as an activist — also shared their thoughts.

Former President George W. Bush, whose first inauguration Lewis skipped, and who later joined Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, said he was mourning Lewis’s death.

“As a young man marching for equality in Selma, Alabama, John answered brutal violence with courageous hope,” Bush said in a statement. “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.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) issued a statement about Lewis’s death that called him “a pioneering civil rights leader who put his life on the line to fight racism, promote equal rights, and bring our nation into greater alignment with its founding principles.”

Critics responded to McConnell’s statement by noting that one of the causes for which Lewis shed blood, the Voting Rights Act, has been defanged, and that McConnell has so far declined to back legislation meant to restore key portions of it.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) called Lewis a man of “unwavering principle, unassailable character, penetrating purpose, and heartfelt compassion.”

Sen. Tim Scott, the Senate’s only African American Republican, said Lewis had welcomed him to Congress with “open arms” after his 2011 election.

“He was a giant among men; his life and legacy will continue to serve as an example for the generations to come,” Scott tweeted. “I am encouraged by his courage, determination, and perseverance, characteristics that we can all try to emulate — especially in the wake of current events.”

The tributes reflected the trajectory of Lewis’s career, from Alabama-born activist to Georgia politician.

Fellow Georgia lawmakers speaking in Lewis’s honor included Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both Republicans, and Stacey Abrams, a Democrat. Former President Jimmy Carter also had praise for Lewis.

“He made an indelible mark on history through his quest to make our nation more just,” Carter, who appointed Lewis the associate director of ACTION, a federal volunteer agency, in 1977, wrote. “Everything he did, he did in a spirit of love. All Americans, regardless of race or religion, owe John Lewis a debt of gratitude.”

Other civil rights leaders praised a friend and comrade.

“My friend, role model, and activist extraordinaire has passed,” Rev. Al Sharpton wrote. “Congressman John Lewis taught us how to be an activist. He changed the world without hate, rancor or arrogance. A rare and great man.”

And Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., said Lewis “personifies a New Testament prophet.”

Dr. King’s children, Bernice King and Martin Luther King III, also praised their father’s colleague.

“Farewell, sir. You did, indeed, fight the good fight and get into a lot of good trouble. You served God and humanity well,” wrote Bernice King, while her brother called Lewis “an American treasure.”

Funeral information for Lewis has not yet been shared, and public tributes of the kind that celebrated the life of fellow activist and Congressman Elijah Cummings after his death in October are unlikely during the coronavirus pandemic.

Notably absent among the immediate outpouring of tributes was a statement from President Trump, who frequently ridiculed Lewis. Lewis skipped Trump’s 2017 inauguration, saying he considered the election to be illegitimate, and Trump has attacked Lewis in tweets, calling him “all talk, talk, talk - no action.”

Although Trump himself did not release a statement Saturday morning, his press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted a tribute, writing that “We hold his family in our prayers, as we remember Rep. John Lewis’ incredible contributions to our country.”