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Remembering John Lewis, an American civil rights icon

The United States bid a final farewell to John Lewis in Atlanta Thursday, after more than a week of observations in his honor. A congressman and lifelong activist, Lewis endured threats, repeated imprisonment and physical violence to fight for civil rights. He was instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Judy Woodruff remembers the American icon who championed "good trouble."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The nation bid a final farewell to John Lewis in Atlanta today, after more than a week of celebrations of the life of the longtime congressman and civil rights leader.

    We will hear some of the remembrances from his funeral service in just a moment, but we begin with a look back at the life and legacy of John Lewis.

    On the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where, 50 years earlier, he and other civil rights leaders were brutally beaten on bloody Sunday, John Lewis reflected on their perseverance.

  • Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.:

    We were beaten, tear-gassed. Some of us was left bloody right here on this bridge; 17 of us were hospitalized that day. But we never became bitter or hostile. We kept believing that the truth we stood would have the final say.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The civil rights icon was born near Troy, Alabama, in 1940. The son of sharecroppers, he grew up in the Deep South in the era of Jim Crow.

    He wanted to be a minister, and would preach to chickens on his family farm. As a teenager, he began listening to civil rights leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr., on radio broadcasts and would soon join the growing movement.

    In 1961, Lewis volunteered with other Freedom Riders, fighting to desegregate lunch counters and public transportation across the South. Many, including Lewis, were arrested, attacked with dogs and sprayed with fire hoses. Some were killed.

  • Rep. John Lewis:

    You believe in something that is so right, so good and so necessary, that you are prepared to stand up and be willing to die for it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    At the height of the civil rights movement, he led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.

    Altogether, Lewis was jailed more than 40 times. He also became close to Dr. King, whom he called "my inspiration."

    At 23 years old, Lewis delivered a speech at the 1963 March on Washington.

    He spoke to the "NewsHour" about the experience 50 years later.

  • Rep. John Lewis:

    I felt that we had to be tough. I had to deliver a speech that reflected the feeling, the views of the young people, and also the views and feeling of the people that were was struggling in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Southwest Georgia, in the Delta of Mississippi.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lewis was back in Washington in 1965, alongside President Lyndon Johnson, as he signed the Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights legislation that prohibited racial discrimination in voting.

    Earlier that year, Johnson had called on Congress to pass the bill after a months-long, often violent voting rights campaign across the South, led by leaders like Lewis.

    Johnson asked Congress for the legislation just days after Bloody Sunday.

  • Former President Lyndon Johnson:

    But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over.

    What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

    Their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes, but, really, it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Voting rights became a part of Lewis' ongoing fight for civil rights.

    After leaving SNCC in 1966, he began working with groups like the Voter Education Project, helping more than four million minority voters register. Then, in 1981, Lewis won a seat on the Atlanta City Council. In 1987, he was elected to Congress, where he would represent Atlanta for the rest of his career.

  • Rep. John Lewis:

    When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something!

  • Judy Woodruff:

    While serving in the House of Representatives, Lewis championed what he called good trouble, continuing to push for civil rights, both in Congress and outside. As a lawmaker, he was the voice for voting rights.

  • Rep. John Lewis:

    The vote is the most powerful nonviolent instrument or tool we have in a democratic society. And people should be able to use it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, later, gun reforms.

    In 2016, in the spirit of his younger years during the civil rights movement, he led House Democrats in a sit-in on the House floor to protest the inaction by the Republican majority.

  • Rep. John Lewis:

    Do we have the courage? Do we have raw courage to make at least a down payment on ending gun violence in America? We can no longer wait. We can no longer be patient.

    So, today, we come to the well of the House to dramatize the need for action, not next month, not next year, but now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Barack Obama awarded Lewis the Medal of Freedom and remarked on how he changed the trajectory of the nation.

  • Former President Barack Obama:

    When we award this medal to Congressman John Lewis, it says that we aspire to be a more just, more equal, more perfect union

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lewis stayed home in Atlanta for President Trump's inauguration, opting instead to march in the city's protest the next day.

  • Rep. John Lewis:

    As a nation and as a people, we have come a distance, we have made progress, but there are forces in America that want to take us back to another time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In December of last year, Lewis announced he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Still, he kept up his good trouble fight for civil rights.

    In March, 55 years after Bloody Sunday, he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge one last time. And just last month, in what would be his final public appearance, Lewis joined a new generation of protesters in Washington, D.C., fighting for justice and equality.

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