Tributes and well-wishes quickly poured in from all corners, just as they did in 2017 and 2008, when Senators John McCain of Arizona and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, respectively, revealed their similarly bleak cancer diagnoses. Former President Barack Obama praised Lewis’s “incomparable will to fight,” while the top Republican in the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, lauded him as a patriot, a civil-rights icon, and “a friend first and foremost.” “They don’t make them stronger or braver,” Isakson said, returning the accolades Lewis had given him weeks earlier.
Read: John Lewis: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the “Other America”
Nearly all the statements alluded in some oblique way to the moment that forged Lewis’s lifelong reputation for courage and moral rigor: During a 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama, a state trooper beat Lewis, then 25, so badly that he fractured his skull. It was not the first time that Lewis, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, was injured while demonstrating for civil rights. He has repeatedly returned to Selma on the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” bringing a bipartisan delegation of congressional leaders to lock arms in symbolic unity as they cross the Pettus Bridge before a crush of media.
Lewis’s civil-rights background has conferred on him a moral authority unique among the 535 members of the House and the Senate. He speaks frequently of the “good trouble” he caused in the 1960s and in political fights since. And in the thundering speeches he occasionally delivers on the House floor, Lewis invokes the language of moral courage. Most recently, that was during the impeachment of President Donald Trump. “For some, this vote may be hard, but we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history,” Lewis said in explaining his support for the articles of impeachment.
The announcement of Lewis’s illness is an even sharper hit to Congress as it comes just two months after the unexpected death of Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, another veteran House Democrat deeply respected by members of both parties. (The two bald-headed African Americans were so often mistaken for each other by newcomers to the Capitol that Lewis used this past April Fool’s Day to announce that he was growing a beard to help people distinguish them.)
Yet, as with his ally Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis’s current image as a unifier and moral beacon tends to sanitize his career, overlooking the violent opposition he encountered during the civil-rights movement, the confrontational protest tactics he used to effect change, and his then-radical policies. Lewis’s political career has also been more complicated, and interesting, than is widely understood. He lost his first bid for Congress, in 1977, and then won in an upset victory in 1986 over a friend turned rival, Julian Bond, a fellow veteran of the civil-rights movement who was then better known nationally. The race was bitter and divisive, with Lewis at one point challenging Bond to take a drug test.