National leaders on Sunday remembered civil rights icon and longtime Georgia Rep. John Lewis as both a fierce fighter against racism and gentle man who inspired children, and called for a moment of action, not merely words of condolence, to properly honor his legacy.
Most pressing, Black leaders said in televised interviews on Sunday, was for Republicans to help Democrats reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act and name it for Lewis.
Lewis died Friday at age 80, seven months after he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Lewis was a lion of the civil rights era. He was the youngest of the “the Big Six,” a coalition of civil rights movement leaders led by Martin Luther King Jr. He helped to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized youth sit-ins at lunch counters. Lewis was among the original 13 Freedom Riders, and in 1965 led the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, where a trooper fractured his skull with a billy club.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday that Lewis was "tough as nails."
"He spent his whole adult life fighting and going after racism, and so a man with that kind of bravery built into him is an incredible individual, and he was," said Powell, who was also the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "And I think what we will always be remembering is what he did for our nation, what he did for our people."
"But," Powell continued, "he was something else, also. He was also a very gentle man in many ways. He loved kids, he loved talking to people. And so we had this gentle man of two, really, forms: one tough as nails, one gentle."
Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Sunday the best way to honor Lewis was to pass legislation restoring the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has passed the legislation, but it's stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Advocates said it should be called the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020.
Clyburn said a 2013 Supreme Court decision lays out a road map for reauthorizing the act.
He said Republicans must help pass the legislation, "if they so celebrate the heroism of this man." He said, "then let's go to work and pass that bill ... And if the president were to sign that, then I think that's what we would do to honor John. It should be the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020. That's the way to do it. Words may be powerful, but deeds are lasting.”
Bass said Lewis "devoted his life to fighting for justice ... and being a moral compass."
Bass said Lewis was "such a calm figure, but a calm figure that was rock solid."