Michigan leaders reflect on late civil rights legend John Lewis, who fought for voting rights until the end

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, announced Sunday that he was recently diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Chuck Stokes already misses civil rights icon John Lewis, who died late Friday night at the age of 80.

“Lewis was one of the most courageous men I have ever met and one of the humblest,” Stokes, editorial director at WXYZ-TV in Detroit, wrote Saturday on the station’s website.

Lewis was a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who represented Georgia in Congress since 1987.

28th August 1963: American minister and civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr (1929 – 1968) waves to the crowd of more than 200,000 people gathered on the Mall during the March on Washington after delivering his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Washington, DC. | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He was the youngest and last surviving member of the Big Six civil rights activists who led the fight to end legalized segregation and overturn Jim Crow laws. He was arrested dozens of times and also beaten as a Freedom Rider. He was the youngest speaker at age 23 at the March on Washington in 1963, sharing a stage with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Our family friendship dates back almost 50 years. I first met John and his wife, Lillian, when I was a freshman at Morehouse College,” Stokes wrote. “At that time, he was executive director of the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project. Lillian was head of the special collection section of Atlanta University’s Library.”

Stokes’ late father, Louis Stokes, a Cleveland Democrat, served with Lewis in the U.S. House of Representatives during the late 1980s and 1990s. Chuck Stokes has been a Michigan resident much of his adult life and chairs the Historical Society of Michigan.

Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in late December. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) confirmed his death, saying the country had lost “one of the greatest heroes of American history.” Lewis was often referred to as the conscience of Congress.

The Troy, Ala., native is best known nationally for the beating he endured at the hands of police in 1965 while leading hundreds in the Bloody Sunday march across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Images of the violence – and his beating, in particular – are often credited with spurring passage of the Voting Rights Act that same year.

But back at home, he is also remembered for his joy – often expressed in the form of dance – and his unceasing activism and call for what he described as “good trouble.”

In May, Lewis talked about the civil unrest that followed the death of George Floyd, an African American man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police.

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, Marian Robinson, join Rep. John Lewis, and former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush during a walk across Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma to Montgomery, in Selma, Alabama, Saturday, March 7, 2015 | Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“History has proven time and again that non-violent, peaceful protest is the way to achieve the justice and equality that we all deserve,” he said. “Our work won’t be easy — nothing worth having ever is — but I strongly believe, as Dr. King once said, that while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.”

In December, Lewis presided over the U.S. House for a vote on HR 4, which would have restored parts of the Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court gutted in 2013. The bill passed on a nearly straight-party 228-187 vote, with all seven Michigan Democrats voting for it and all six Republicans and U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (L-Cascade Twp.) voting against it.

Lewis’ last visit to Michigan was in November 2019 to attend the funeral of former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., a longtime colleague. He had been scheduled to keynote the Dr. Martin Luther King Commission of Mid-Michigan’s January event, but canceled due to his illness, as the Advance previously reported.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered on Saturday that U.S. and Michigan flags within the State Capitol Complex and upon all public buildings and grounds across the state of Michigan to be lowered to half-staff today, “to honor the life and service.”

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“A civil rights legend who stood firmly on the front lines of our nation’s history,” Whitmer said.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, the first African American to serve in the post, also pointed out Lewis’ impact.

“America lost one of its greatest warriors in the fight for civil rights at a time when his leadership was needed the most,” Gilchrist said.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint Twp.) was saddened by Lewis’ death.

“John was the conscience of the Congress and my friend. When John rose to speak, others always listened. Sometimes speaking in a whisper, and other times in a roar, John’s voice always brought moral clarity and purpose,” Kildee said.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield), the state’s only African-American U.S. House member, lamented Lewis’ death.

“America lost a fearless leader, but his legacy will live on as we continue the fight for equality. May he rest in power,” Lawrence said.

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Praise for Lewis and his commitment to civil rights was also remembered by some Republicans, like U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph).

“The Congress, our nation, and the world lost a giant last night,” Upton said. “I’m truly saddened to wake to the news that John Lewis – my friend, a civil rights icon, and a powerful force for justice in our nation – passed from this world.

“The Congress will miss John, our moral compass. He served his constituents and the United States with a deep sense of duty, unparalleled courage, and conviction. He was a true role model and mentor to so many of us. No one spoke more eloquently. Every time he got up to speak you could hear a pin drop on the House floor. To be in the same room with John Lewis was to be encouraged and inspired; challenged and changed. His experience, life, and wisdom taught all of us so much.”

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) joined the chorus of praise for Lewis.

“I feel so much gratitude to have learned from this giant of American history and to have served, however briefly, alongside him. His loss is devastating, his memory everlasting. Rest in power, my brother.”

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U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) was saddened by Lewis’ death. She lost her husband, the former Dean of Congress, John Dingell, in February 2019. 

“A close friend of both John Dingell and I, John Lewis inspired everyone he knew and built an army to fight the good fight with him. I know John Lewis and John Dingell are with each other again – surly making a bit a trouble,” she tweeted.

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) tweeted,“You were American hero and an incredible soul- one of the most remarkable I have ever known. You will be so missed, Mr. Lewis. But I promise I will keep fighting for what’s right in honor of the way you lived your life and all you taught us.”

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) also took to social media and tweeted, “John Lewis put his life on the line in the fight for justice –– not just on the Edmund Pettus bridge, but many times in a righteous struggle to validate the high ideals of our nation’s founding. His physical courage was matched by his moral courage as the conscience of Congress.”

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U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) tweeted: “Congressman #JohnLewis taught us we have ‘a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to speak up, speak out and get in good trouble.’ May we honor his legacy as civil rights giant and exemplar of public service by continuing to be #goodtrouble. Rest in power, Congressman.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who represents Michigan’s largest city, said, “The passing of legendary civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis is deeply painful at this particular time in our nation’s history, when his commanding presence in Congress is needed most.”

Stokes summed up his tribute to Lewis this way:

“He had an extraordinary life. I’m honored to have had a friendship with him. He won’t want us to spend a lot of time mourning his death. He’ll want the world to honor him by doing what’s right. John, rest in peace, as you reunite with your beloved Lillian.”

Georgia Recorder Deputy Editor Jill Nolin and Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.