Georgia Representative John Lewis, a civil rights icon who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and served in Congress for decades, died following a months-long battle with cancer. Lewis passed away on Friday at the age of 80, and while a statement from his family did not speak on his cause of death, he did fight a widely publicized battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
In a statement obtained by CNN, Lewis' family announced his death "with inconsolable grief and enduring sadness," stating that he was "honored and respected as the conscience of the US Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother." They remembered him as "a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being" and as someone who "dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism." They said that "he will be deeply missed."
Six months before his death, a routine medical visit and subsequent testing led to his stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis in December of 2019. At the time, Lewis had vowed to fight the disease, saying in a statement that "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." Although acknowledging the poor prognosis for the disease, he also offered hope, stating that "recent medical advances have made this type of cancer treatable in many cases" and that he had "a fighting chance." He vowed to "do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community."
Lewis had maintained that hope into June, when he spoke about his cancer battle with CBS' Gayle King. During the interview, Lewis said that he had "a wonderful doctor and nurse, and everybody taking good care of me" and was "very hopeful and very optimistic." In an interview with New York magazine published that same month, he said that his "health is improving” and that despite having good and bad days, he was, overall, feeling "good.”
Known as the "Conscience of Congress" by his colleagues, Lewis' death left many shocked, with a large number of Congressmen taking a moment to pay their respects. In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Lewis a "titan of the civil rights movement, whose goodness faith and bravery transformed our nation." Former President Barack Obama, in a Medium post, called Lewis "one of my heroes." He added that thanks to Lewis, “we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise."