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LI activists, lawmakers salute civil rights icon John Lewis

Rep. John Lewis, middle, speaks at a SUNY

Rep. John Lewis, middle, speaks at a SUNY Old Westbury panel, moderated by former Newsday journalist, Les Payne, left, with journalist Bill Moyers on Nov. 12, 2015. Credit: Johnny Milano

Lawmakers and activists across Long Island saluted civil rights icon and longtime Georgia Rep. John Lewis as they mourned his death, which comes at a time when communities are still confronting racial injustices decades after he started fighting for equality.

“John Lewis’ life and now his death has to inspire us — all of us — to keep going for justice, for reform and for equity,” said Tracey Edwards, Long Island Regional Director of the NAACP New York State Conference. “It’s important for all of us to take time out of whatever we’re doing to talk about his legacy.”

Lewis, 80, represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987. He died Friday after battling Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

Lewis was the youngest of “the Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement, one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, and a leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which led to the Voting Rights Act.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian, another prominent civil rights leader, also died Friday. Vivian was a Baptist minister and field general for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 2013, former President Barack Obama gave Vivian the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. Lewis received the medal in 2011. 

“They were giants of their generation and ours,” Edwards said. “Both of them passing on the same day is tragic. It is also a reminder of how important it is to pick up the baton and continue to move forward.”

Lewis last month visited and shared support for the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., where the words "Black Lives Matter" are painted in yellow on a street blocks away from the White House.

The mural was done days after nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died while in Minneapolis police custody. All four officers who were involved have been fired and charged in connection with Floyd's death.

State and national political leaders expressed condolences for Lewis and his family on Saturday.

"It's especially painful to lose Congressman Lewis at a moment when we need him most — when division, fear, and anger are rampant and when we're trying to figure out how to rebuild our country better than we were before," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement.

President Donald Trump tweeted he was "saddened" by the news of Lewis' death and issued an order to lower the flags at the White House and other federal buildings in honor of Lewis. 

Local leaders on Saturday shared memories of meeting Lewis.

"Last year, my family and I had the privilege of meeting with Congressman Lewis in our nation’s Capitol," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement. "It was a powerful moment for my children to listen to his stories of peacefully protesting to advance the cause of civil rights in this country." 

SUNY Old Westbury president Calvin O. Butts III recalled sitting down with Lewis at a campus event five years ago.

"I am proud SUNY Old Westbury was able to host Congressman Lewis for a moving program back in 2015 that not only excited and informed our students about the history and ongoing trajectory of our nation, but that tied so well into the mission and values of our college," Butts said in an email. 

State political leaders noted the significance of the march from Selma to Montgomery, which led to federal legislation prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.

"His actions opened the door for so many Americans, including myself," said State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx). "With the passage of the Voting Rights Act, John Lewis transformed the political landscape for African Americans, allowing people of color to not only participate in elections, but to represent their communities in government as elected officials."

State Attorney General Letitia James said, "We will continue to follow the example of the great John Lewis by voting, fighting voter suppression at every turn, and standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves."

Other state and county officials also paid tribute to the longtime congressman, who was known in Washington as "the conscience of the Congress."

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said Lewis "was an American hero who dedicated his whole life to ensure our nation lived up to its ideals."

State Sen. Jim Gaughran, who represents the 5th District, spanning towns across Nassau and Suffolk counties, said of Lewis, "Our nation was lucky to have his leadership and commitment to justice for all."

Fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives also remarked on Lewis' death.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who represents the 2nd Congressional District, tweeted he was "proud to serve with him. Will miss him being in the office next to mine after these many years."

Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) tweeted a photo with Lewis with the caption, "It was the greatest honor of my life to serve with him in Congress." 

Civil rights activist Bob Zellner, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee with Lewis in the early 1960s, recalled, in a phone interview on Saturday, memories of the late congressman.

Zellner taught the history of the civil rights movement at Long Island University for 20 years until he retired in 2015. He recently moved back to his home state of Alabama, where he first met Lewis in his early 20s.

“John Lewis was one of the young leaders that I and many other young white Southerners had great respect for,” Zellner said. “He showed us the importance of taking action, not just having an idea or feeling.”

Zellner reunited with Lewis in March during the 55th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery.

“He seemed to be as strong and motivated as ever,” Zellner said as he began to cry, remembering his last moments face-to-face with his friend. 

"We always laughed about having the same first two names — he was John Robert Lewis and I was John Robert Zellner," Zellner said. "We were one Black Alabamian and one white Alabamian, working together to bridge the gap between our races.”

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