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John Lewis, civil rights icon and longtime congressman, dies

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John Lewis, who went from being the youngest leader of the 1963 March on Washington to a long-serving congressman from Georgia and icon of the civil rights movement, died Friday. He was 80.

In December 2019, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

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As a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was a committed participant in some of the key moments of the movement — an original Freedom Rider in 1961, a principal speaker at the March on Washington in 1963, one of those brutally clubbed during a 1965 march in Selma, Ala. Through it all, he faced taunts, beatings and dozens of arrests.

“In the face of what John considered the evils of segregation, he was fearless,” said longtime SNCC activist Courtland Cox.

By his middle years, he was in Congress and sometimes referred to it as its “conscience.”

Tributes poured in late Friday night from across the political spectrum, with Democrats and Republicans offering condolences on Lewis’ passing.

“Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history: Congressman John Lewis, the Conscience of the Congress,“ House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said late Friday.

In 2009, he was a witness to the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African American president.

“Generations from now,” Obama said when awarding him a Medal of Freedom in 2011, “when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind — an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”

In 2017, he came under attack from Obama’s successor, Donald Trump. “All talk, talk, talk — no action or results,” Trump tweeted of Lewis as the two traded insults. Lewis subsequently invoked Trump to encourage his admirers: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair,” he tweeted in June 2018. “Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Through it all, the son of the deeply segregated Deep South had an outsize impact on public life.

“What we found, as we pushed our protests deeper into the heart of segregated society, was that our nonviolent actions were met with increasingly more violent responses.”

 John Lewis

John Robert Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama, on Feb. 21, 1940, one of 10 children of Eddie and Willie Mae Lewis. According to “March,” his three-part autobiography in graphic novel form, he dreamed from a young age of being a preacher. He was in charge of taking care of his family’s chickens and would practice sermons on them: “I preached to my chickens just about every night.”

His early years predated the big burst of activism that would begin in the mid 1950s. “Growing up in rural Alabama,” he wrote in “March,” “my parents knew it could be dangerous to make any waves.” Even after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, nothing much changed in his rural community.

As a teen, Lewis met both Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1957, he went to the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, where he connected with some of the people who would become leading lights of the civil rights movement: Diane Nash, James Bevel, Jim Lawson, Bernard Lafayette and C.T. Vivian. (Vivian died earlier Friday at the age of 95.)

“By the fall of ’58, my eyes were opening in many ways,” he wrote in “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement,” his 1998 memoir. Lewis would help launch SNCC, an organization founded as an offshoot of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by King and dedicated to the principles of nonviolence.

The movement had begun to blossom. It took a further step forward with the first sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., at a lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in February 1960. The Nashville activists were soon emulating the tactic, starting with lunch counters and moving on other establishments, such as movie theaters. During one sit-in, a restaurant owner turned a fumigating machine on Lewis and Bevel and left. “Were we not human to him?” Lewis wondered.

“What we found, as we pushed our protests deeper into the heart of segregated society,” Lewis wrote in “March,” “was that our nonviolent actions were met with increasingly more violent responses.”

In May 1961, Lewis headed south with the first Freedom Riders, an integrated group of bus riders who traveled from Washington to integrate the facilities of interstate bus terminals. Lewis was the first of the riders to be assaulted, during a stop in Rock Hill, S.C. He was punched and kicked. Lewis would be assaulted again in Montgomery, Ala., where he was knocked unconscious.

“I could feel my knees collapse and then nothing,” Lewis recalled, according to “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice” by Raymond Arsenault. “Everything turned white for an instant, then black.”

For his trouble, he would subsequently be jailed, ending up in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm. In the fall of 1961, however, the campaign yielded results: All interstate travel facilities were integrated.

“The fare was paid in blood,” Lewis wrote in “March,” “but the Freedom Rides stirred the national consciousness and awoke the hearts and minds of a generation.”

SNCC veteran Cox said in 2020: “John’s fundamental belief of confronting the evils of segregation that was pervasive in the South allowed him to ‘march into hell for a heavenly cause.’”

In 1963, Lewis became SNCC‘s chairman. That made him the head of one of the six leading civil rights organizations working on the Aug. 28 March of Washington for Jobs and Freedom that was being planned by A. Philip Randolph, a labor leader and elder statesman of the civil rights movement. Randolph had been trying to organize such a march since 1941.

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Herman Cain dies at 74 after weeks-long battle with coronavirus

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Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza who became a GOP front-runner for president for his firebrand conservatism, died Thursday at the age of 74 from COVID-19.

Cain had entered an Atlanta-area hospital in early July after falling ill with coronavirus shortly after attending President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Okla. A spokesperson on Monday had said the former Republican presidential candidate was “being treated with oxygen for his lungs.” 

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“Suddenly, the plague strikes home,” political consultant Dick Morris told Newsmax on Thursday. 

Cain who was a co-chair of Black Voices for Trump attended Trump’s June 20 rally in Tulsa. Cain posted a photo to his Instagram account of a group at the rally without masks or social distancing.

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Oregon asks for restraining order against federal agents in Portland

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Attorneys for Oregon argued Wednesday for a restraining order against federal agents deployed to quell protests in Portland, in a standoff that some legal experts have warned could lead to a constitutional crisis in an election year.

A federal judge heard the state’s and the U.S. government’s arguments in a lawsuit filed by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who accuses federal agents of arresting protesters without probable cause, whisking them away in unmarked cars and using excessive force to quell the unrest. Federal authorities have disputed that.

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The lawsuit is part of a growing pushback against the Trump administration’s use of federal agents in Portland and its plans to do the same in other cities that is deepening the country’s already considerable political divides. Democratic mayors of 15 cities — including Portland and cities where President Donald Trump has sent or threatened to send federal forces — condemned the use of the agents in a letter to the attorney general.

The hearing Wednesday focused on the actions of more than 100 federal agents responding to protests outside the the city’s Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse, which has been a target for more than 50 nights of demonstrations against racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The motion for a temporary restraining order asks U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman to command agents from the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the Federal Protective Service and the U.S. Marshals Service to immediately stop detaining protesters without probable cause, to identify themselves and their agency before arresting anyone, and to explain why an arrest is taking place.

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John Lewis, a civil rights giant, crosses infamous Selma bridge one final time

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Crowds watched solemnly Sunday as the body of Rep. John Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge one final time, 55 years after the civil rights icon marched for peace and was met with brutality in Selma, Alabama.

Body bearers from the U.S. armed forces placed the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon onto a horse-drawn caisson Sunday at the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. From there, the public was allowed to line up to honor Lewis for about a half-mile to the foot of the bridge.

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Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., thanked Lewis’ family during a ceremony at the chapel for sharing the congressman with the public for so many years.

“Our nation is better off because of John Robert Lewis,” she remarked. “My life is better, Selma is better, this nation and this world is better because of John Robert Lewis.”

The casket of late Rep. John Lewis is carried from the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma on Sunday. Christopher Aluka Berry / Reuters

Crowds waited for Lewis’ body at the foot of the bridge, where he was met by Alabama state troopers, who safely escorted him across and on to the state Capitol.

“His final march, that final crossing, so different than the first, speaks to the legacy that he leaves behind and the lives that he changed,” Sewell said. “It’s poetic justice that this time, Alabama state troopers will see John to his safety.”

As the horse-drawn caisson approached the bridge, the crowds on the sidewalk could be heard singing for Lewis. In an emotional moment, the voices stopped as Lewis’ casket began to make its way across the bridge in silent reverence.

Lewis, who died on July 17 at the age of 80, made his last journey across the bridge with only his family to join him.

Lewis’ son, brothers and sister followed behind the caisson along with Lewis’ longtime chief of staff, wearing shirts emblazoned with the words “Good Trouble,” a nod to Lewis’ view on activism.

The casket of Rep. John Lewis is carried over the Edmund Pettus Bridge by horse-drawn carriage in Selma on Sunday. John Bazemore / AP

The lawmaker, who died in his 17th term and was often called the “conscience of Congress,” was a giant of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Lewis was only 25 when he believed Alabama troopers would kill him on the peaceful march for voting rights across the bridge on March 7, 1965, which became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Lewis suffered a fractured skull and was one of dozens of nonviolent protesters who were hospitalized. News coverage of the brutal beatings prompted increased pressure on Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, barring states from enforcing discriminatory laws that had long hindered prospective Black voters.

Though Lewis is possibly best known for his march in Selma, he had already emerged as a leading voice in the fight for equal rights and had been arrested a number of times for the cause by then.

The casket of Rep. John Lewis moves over the Edmund Pettus Bridge by horse drawn carriage during a memorial service for Lewis in Selma, Ala., on July 26, 2020.John Bazemore / AP

As a student at Fisk University in Tennessee, Lewis helped organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. He was one of the original Freedom Riders in 1961, taking buses from the North to the Deep South to protest segregation at interstate bus terminals.

At 23, Lewis was the youngest person who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the time.

Calls have grown to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge after Lewis, to honor the man who was arguably a lion in the fight for equality. A petition began in June by political strategist Michael Starr Hopkins, who told NBC News at the time that the idea came to him while watching Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” following days of protesting.

But Lewis’ death amplified the call to rename the bridge, which currently honors a Confederate general and KKK leader.

Selma officials, however, oppose the name change, according to the Associated Press. Alabama state Rep. Prince Chestnut, whose legislative district includes Selma, said it would be inappropriate to rename the bridge for Lewis alone.

“There were many Selmians and Alabamians who were either on the bridge in March 1965, near the vicinity or precipitated the situation that changed this country for the better. John was not the only one,” Chestnut said in a statement to the Associated Press.

John Lewis, third from left, walks with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as they begin the Selma to Montgomery march from Brown’s Chapel Church in Selma on March 21, 1965.William Lovelace / Daily Express- Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Chestnut said he’d favor calling it something more general, such as the “Bloody Sunday Bridge” or “Historic Selma Bridge,” rather than naming it for Lewis.

But Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., told MSNBC after Lewis’ death that the Georgia congressman had made unmatched sacrifices for the civil rights cause.

“Take his name off that bridge,” Clyburn said, “and replace it with a good man — John Lewis, the personification of the goodness of America — rather than honor someone who disrespected individual freedoms.”

Doha Madani – Doha Madani is a breaking news reporter for NBC News. 

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