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Obama on his 'hero' Rep. John Lewis: 'I was only there because of the sacrifices he made'

Obama credited the former Freedom Rider for helping him to become the nation's first Black president.
Image: Barack Obama, John Lewis
President Barack Obama presents a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington.Carolyn Kaster / AP, file

Rep. John Lewis "loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise," former President Barack Obama said Friday night in paying tribute to one of his personal heroes.

"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," Obama said in a statement.

Lewis, the "Conscience of Congress," died Friday night at the age 80 from pancreatic cancer.

Obama credited the former Freedom Rider for helping him to become the nation's first Black president.

"I first met John when I was in law school, and I told him then that he was one of my heroes. Years later, when I was elected a U.S. Senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders," Obama said. "When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made."

The last time Obama and Lewis shared a forum was, fittingly, in the wake of George Floyd's death during a virtual town hall with young activists. The two men spoke privately afterward and Lewis told Obama that he was "proud" of a new generation making their voices heard.

"I told him that all those young people — of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — they were his children," Obama said. "They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it. They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they had heard of his courage only through history books."

Obama was one of many who heralded Lewis as a champion for peace, justice and equality.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Lewis was much more than an elected leader. He was "a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation," she tweeted.

“Every day of John Lewis’s life was dedicated to bringing freedom and justice to all," Pelosi said in a statement. "As he declared 57 years ago during the March on Washington, standing in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial: ‘Our minds, souls, and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all the people.’"

Former Vice President Joe Biden said that he and his wife, Jill, spoke to Lewis a few days before he passed and that the congressman "was himself – a man at peace, of dignity, grace and character."

"How could someone in flesh and blood be so courageous, so full of hope and love in the face of so much hate, violence, and vengeance? Perhaps it was the Spirit that found John as a young boy in the Deep South dreaming of preaching the social gospel; the work ethic his sharecropper parents instilled in him and that stayed with him; the convictions of nonviolent civil disobedience he mastered from Dr. King and countless fearless leaders in the movement; or the abiding connection with the constituents of Georgia’s 5th District he loyally served for decades," Biden said in a statement Saturday.

"Or perhaps it was that he was truly a one-of-a-kind, a moral compass who always knew where to point us and which direction to march."

The Congressional Black Caucus, one of many Lewis belonged to, praised his fearlessness and said that his mere presence "encouraged a new generation of activist to 'speak up and speak out' and get into 'good trouble' to continue bending the arc toward justice and freedom."

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., shared a video on Twitter Saturday morning recounting his long friendship with Lewis, going back to when they first crossed paths at a meeting for what would become known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Atlanta in 1960.

"That weekend was transformative to me," Clybrun said. "John and I enjoyed almost 60 years of friendship. We never thought back then that we would be successful enough in the movement to both end up serving in Congress together. Yet, for almost 27 years, we did — because he never lost faith."

Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., lamented Lewis' death, saying "our hearts feel empty without our friend, but we find comfort knowing that he is free at last."

In 1963, Lewis was one of the speakers at the March on Washington, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

"He gave a voice to the voiceless, and he reminded each of us that the most powerful nonviolent tool is the vote," King's son said in a tweet.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, said that serving alongside Lewis in the House "was one of the great honors of my life."

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, echoed the sentiment, calling Lewis an "American hero."

"May your example be an inspiration and light for generations seeking justice and freedom," he said in a tweet. "Rest in Power."

Castro's brother, former presidential candidate Julian Castro, said Lewis "was a giant among men" and a "a hell raiser known for making ‘good trouble.’"

"In mourning his passing, let us aspire to build the nation that Congressman Lewis believed it could be," Julian Castro tweeted.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky recalled joining hands with Lewis in 2008 while singing "We Shall Overcome" during a ceremony to honor Lewis' friend and civil rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Dr. King famously said 'the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.' But progress is not automatic," McConnell said in a statement. "Our great nation’s history has only bent toward justice because great men like John Lewis took it upon themselves to help bend it. Our nation will never forget this American hero.”

House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana said that one of Lewis’ greatest attributes was his relentless commitment to improving life for everyone.

"As accomplished and revered as he was, he never stopped working to advance the cause of equality and justice for all, even in his final days as he was battling for his own life. I was proud to call John Lewis a friend, and he will be deeply missed,” Scalise said in a statement. “America is a more perfect union because of the blood, sweat, and tears sacrificed by the great John Lewis."