Former U.S. President Barack Obama has joined dozens of politicians and activists in paying tribute to John Lewis, the long-serving congressman and civil rights icon who died Friday night at the age of 80 after a battle with cancer.
In an essay released shortly after the news was confirmed, Obama called Lewis “one of my heroes” and highlighted not only the Georgia representative’s notable activist history, but also his influence on future generations of demonstrators, including the current Black Lives Matter movement.
“He 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.”
Obama said he first met Lewis as a law student, and encountered him again after his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, when “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 wrote.
Lewis had endorsed Hillary Clinton over Obama during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, only to switch to Obama after seeing his widespread support among Black voters. He later said Obama’s election “showed the world the true promise of America.”
In 2011, Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour of the United States.
Four years later, on March 7, 2015, Obama and Lewis held hands as they and dozens of others marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to mark the 50th anniversary of the demonstration that became known as Bloody Sunday.
Lewis led that original march and suffered a head injury when white police officers and others violently attacked up to 600 Black demonstrators. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law later that year.
Obama said the last time he and Lewis appeared together was during a virtual town hall that gathered young activists who had helped lead protests around the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in a police chokehold. He said Lewis “could not have been prouder” of the wave of that group and others who were running for political office and fighting for change.
“I told him that all those young people — of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — they were his children,” Obama wrote. “They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it. They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they had heard of his courage only through history books.”
Obama was far from alone in lionizing Lewis as an icon of the civil rights movement and “the conscious of Congress” following his death.
Bernice King, the daughter of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — with whom Lewis organized the 1963 March of Washington and helped lead the non-violent civil rights movement of the 1960s — was among many who cited Lewis’ oft-quoted call for “good trouble” when fighting for equality.
“You served God and humanity well. Thank you. Take your rest,” she said.
“Thank you for your support. Thank you for your activism. Thank you for your lessons,” said Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Nathan Law.
His message retweeted a video of Lewis and fellow Rep. Tom Suozzi sharing messages of support for the movement Law has helped organize.
“John Lewis gave all he had to redeem America’s unmet promise of equality and justice for all, and to create a place for us to build a more perfect union together,” Bill and Hillary Clinton said in a joint statement.
“We’ll miss him so much, but we’ll always be grateful that he lived to see a new generation of Americans take to the streets in search of his long sought ‘beloved community.'”
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, also paid tribute to Lewis, who earned praise and support from both sides of the aisle in Congress, calling him “an American hero.”
“Congressman Lewis’ place among the giants of American history was secure before his career in Congress had even begun,” he said in a statement. “Our great nation’s history has only bent towards justice because great men like John Lewis took it upon themselves to help bend it.”
“John Lewis was an icon who fought with every ounce of his being to advance the cause of civil rights for all Americans,” Sen. Kamala Harris said. “I’m devastated for his family, friends, staff — and all those whose lives he touched.”
Stacey Abrams, a Democratic activist and founder of Fair Fight, a voting rights group in Lewis’ home state of Georgia, called Lewis “a griot of this modern age,” a reference to West African storytellers and poets who helped preserve their culture’s history.
“I loved him and will miss him,” she said.
—With files from the Associated Press and Reuters