Civil rights movement leaders and icons of social justice Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian died within hours of one another on Friday. Lewis was 80 years old. Vivian was 95.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed Lewis’ death Friday evening, calling him “one of the greatest heroes of American history.”
“All of us were humbled to call Congressman Lewis a colleague, and are heartbroken by his passing,” said Pelosi in a press statement to the Associated Press. “May his memory be an inspiration that moves us all to, in the face of injustice, make ‘good trouble, necessary trouble.’”
Barack Obama, the first Black President of the United States, also commemorated Lewis, who had represented Georgia’s 5th District for 33 years at the time of his passing.
“He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise,” wrote Obama in a statement released Friday. “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.”
Born in Alabama in 1940, a time when Jim Crow laws were still fully in effect, Lewis pushed back against system racism from an early age. He unsuccessfully attempted to integrate Troy State University, the AP notes, and he organized sit-ins at white-only lunch counters as a college student in Nashville.
Lewis, who co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, put his body on the line countless times, volunteering as a Freedom Rider, leading the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and organizing the 1963 March on Washington. The last surviving member of the Big Six—a group of prominent figures in the fight against segregation and anti-Black voter suppression in postwar America that also included the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—he was arrested a total of 40 times in the 1960s, according to the AP, and the widely broadcast images of his beating by Alabama state troopers in Selma are credited with spurring the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act.
Elected to the House of Representatives in 1986, Lewis continued to push for civil rights in the United States and elsewhere while in Congress, voting against former Pres. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and condemning current Pres. Donald Trump’s horrific family separation policy. The Congressman also supported this latest wave of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and systemic racism, prompted by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets—to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble,’” Mr. Lewis told CBS This Morning last month, per The New York Times.
“This feels and looks so different,” he continued “It is so much more massive and all inclusive… There will be no turning back.”
Hours before Pelosi confirmed Lewis’ death, news broke that Vivian had died, CNN reports. Vivian began his activism with a nonviolent lunch counter sit-in at a segregated dining establishment in Peoria, Illinois, in 1947. He, like Lewis, volunteered as a Freedom Rider.
Through the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, an organization he co-founded, Vivian organized anti-Jim Crow actions like marches and sit-ins. He continued organizing into the late 1970s, CNN notes, founding an anti-racism organization that monitored the Ku Klux Klan. Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, two years after the former President did the same with Lewis.