John Lewis
Congressman John Lewis addresses supporters of Democrat Jon Ossoff as they wait for the poll numbers to come in for Georgia's 6th Congressional District special election in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., June 20, 2017 Image Credit: REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry

Rep. John Lewis, a son of sharecroppers and an apostle of nonviolence who was bloodied at Selma and across the Jim Crow South in the historic struggle for racial equality and who then carried a mantle of moral authority into Congress, died Friday. He was 80.

His death was confirmed by a senior Democratic official.

He announced on Dec. 29 that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and vowed to fight it with the same passion with which he had battled racial injustice. "I have been in some kind of fight - for freedom, equality, basic human rights - for nearly my entire life," he said.

On the front lines of the bloody campaign to end Jim Crow laws, with blows to his body and a fractured skull to prove it, Lewis was a valiant stalwart of the civil rights movement and the last surviving speaker at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

More than a half-century later, after the killing in May of George Floyd, a Black man in police custody in Minneapolis, Lewis welcomed the resulting global demonstrations against systemic racism and the police killings of Black people. He saw those demonstrations, the largest protest movement in American history, as a continuation of his life's work, although his illness had left him to watch from the sideline.

"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,'" Lewis told "CBS This Morning" in June.

"This feels and looks so different," he said of the Black Lives Matter movement that drove the anti-racism demonstrations, which dwarfed the civil rights protests of the 1960s. "It is so much more massive and all inclusive."

And this time, he said, "there will be no turning back."

Lewis' personal history paralleled that of the civil rights movement. He was among the original 13 Freedom Riders, the Black and white activists who challenged segregated interstate travel in the South in 1961. He was a founder and early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which coordinated lunch-counter sit-ins. He helped organize the March on Washington, where the main speaker on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lewis led demonstrations against racially segregated restrooms, hotels, restaurants, public parks and swimming pools, and he rose up against other indignities of second-class citizenship. At nearly every turn, he was beaten, spat upon or burned with cigarettes. He was tormented by shrieking white mobs and absorbed body blows from law enforcement.

On March 7, 1965, he led one of the most famous marches in American history. In the vanguard of 600 people demanding the voting rights they had been denied, Lewis marched partway across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, into a waiting phalanx of state troopers in riot gear.

Ordered to disperse, the protesters silently stood their ground. The troopers responded with tear gas and bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. In the melee, known as Bloody Sunday, a trooper cracked Lewis' skull with a billy club, knocking him to the ground, then hit him again when he tried to get up.

Televised images of the beatings of Lewis and scores of others outraged the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson presented to a joint session of Congress eight days later and signed into law Aug. 6. A milestone in the struggle for civil rights, the law struck down the literacy tests that Black people had been compelled to take before they could register to vote and replaced segregationist voting registrars with federal registrars to ensure that they were no longer denied the ballot.

Once registered, millions of African Americans began transforming politics across the South. They gave Jimmy Carter, a son of Georgia, his margin of victory in the 1976 presidential election. And their voting power opened the door for Black people, including Lewis, to run for public office. Elected in 1986, he became the second African American in Congress from Georgia since Reconstruction.

While Lewis represented Atlanta, his natural constituency was disadvantaged people everywhere. Known less for sponsoring major legislation than for his relentless pursuit of justice, his colleagues called him "the conscience of the Congress."

John Robert Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940, to Eddie and Willie Mae (Carter) Lewis near the town of Troy on a sharecropping farm owned by a white man. After his parents bought their own farm - 110 acres for $300 - John, the third of 10 children, shared in the farm work, leaving school at harvest time to pick cotton, peanuts and corn.

In 1998 he married Lillian Miles, a librarian, teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer. She died in 2012. Lewis' survivors include several siblings and his son, John-Miles Lewis.

Praise for John Lewis from nation's political elite

"We have lost a giant," former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a joint statement. "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."

Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, wrote that Lewis had "altered the course of history and left America a much better place."

"We have lost a legendary leader, civil rights icon and change agent extraordinaire," Jeffries wrote.

"John Lewis was a human saint," Mike Espy, a former Democratic congressman and agriculture secretary who is running for Senate in Mississippi, wrote on Twitter. "I was lucky enough to be his classmate and friend. America has lost a hero."

Justin Amash, the Libertarian congressman from Michigan who left the Republican Party last year, remembered Lewis on Twitter as "gentle and strong and kind." He added, "His message was justice, and his voice was powerful. May his memory be eternal."

In a Twitter thread, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, called Lewis a civil rights legend and a "moral voice for the whole nation."

When Omar arrived in the capital for freshman orientation, she recalled in 2018, she ran into Lewis and burst into tears. "I said to him, 'Sir, I read about you in middle school, and you're here in the flesh, and I get to be your colleague,'" she said during a tearful interview.

In her Twitter thread Friday, Omar reflected further on her interactions with Lewis in Washington.

"He called me 'daughter' and would tell me how incredible it was for me to be in Congress and visit Africa with him as his colleague," she wrote. "He never lost his youthful joy and passion for democracy."

Lewis announced in December that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and vowed to fight it with the same passion with which he had battled racial injustice.

He welcomed the recent demonstrations against systemic racism and the police killings of Black people, seeing them as a continuation of his life's work.

Michael Hardaway, a spokesman for Jeffries, said in an interview early Saturday that he had dropped by to see Lewis last year and that they had spoken about social injustice on President Donald Trump's watch.

Lewis, Hardaway said, "was unworried. He told me we will win. And that young people will lead the way. The last thing he said was, 'Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Be brave.'"