US congressman and decades-long civil rights activist John Lewis has died, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement on Friday.
The long-time member of the US House of Representatives was 80 years old and had been fighting pancreatic cancer.
Calling Lewis “the Conscience of the Congress,” Pelosi praised the “moral leadership” he brought to the US legislature over more than 30 years. “Every day of John Lewis’ life was dedicated to bringing freedom and justice to all,” Pelosi wrote.
Lewis, born the son of sharecroppers in 1940 in Alabama, was considered one of the most prominent civil rights activists in the US. As a university student, he had taken part in sit-ins and freedom rides to protest against segregation, despite facing police violence.
He continued to be a proponent of Martin Luther King Jr’s practice of non-violent protest throughout his time in Congress and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour, in 2011.
Lewis had announced in December that he had stage-four pancreatic cancer and pledged to fight it while continuing to serve his constituents in the 5th congressional district of Georgia.
“I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he wrote in a statement at the time.
Former US president Barack Obama said he was struck by Lewis’ humility when he met him, as well as his understanding that “he was just one of a long line of heroes in the struggle for racial justice.”
Each generation of Americans should take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it on, Obama wrote in a statement.
“John Lewis – one of the original Freedom Riders, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Member of Congress representing the people of Georgia for 33 years – not only assumed that responsibility, he made it his life’s work,” he said.
The Congressional Black Caucus also mourned the loss of “a fighter for justice,” recalling how Lewis had recently visited the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington DC and encouraged activists to get into “good trouble” while fighting for more justice and freedom.
“We have more work to do, but we would not be where are without John Lewis. May he rest in power, and may we humbly and boldly walk in his footsteps,” wrote Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser on Twitter.
As a “sign of respect,” President Donald Trump ordered that flags be flown at half mast over the White House and at public buildings throughout the country, a White House statement said on Saturday. The move also applies to all military facilities, warships and embassies.
Trump did not comment on Lewis’ death until midday on Saturday. He had driven to his golf course in Virginia that day.
Lewis had often criticized Trump, and boycotted his inauguration in 2017. Trump responded by urging Lewis to take better care of his constituency in a tweet.
Trump’s spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany tweeted on Saturday that Lewis had been an “icon of the civil rights movement” and left behind an enduring legacy that could never be forgotten.