Houston leaders react to death of civil rights icon John Lewis

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- "A gladiator and a fighter" is how Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner remembered Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 80. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year.

Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee said she had spoken to her colleague earlier this week.

RELATED: John Lewis, lion of civil rights and Congress, dies at 80

"He was strong, he was committed. John had a cause. He wanted freedom now and wanted justice now," Lee said.

Lewis was the sole surviving civil rights icon from the movement that accelerated change in the 1960s.

He grew up in rural Alabama, near the town of Troy, the son of sharecroppers.

He wanted to be a preacher as a child, and he would sermonize before the chickens on his family's farm.

Lewis graduated from a theological school and went on to Fisk University.

As a student, he was introduced to the student's nonviolent coordinating committee, which led him into the inner circle of Dr. Martin Luther King.

"He learned from Dr. King, the passive resistance of non-violence," said Reverend Bill Lawson of Houston, who was also part of the civil rights movement. "More than that, he spoke to the younger generation of now. He also spoke to the young people of today, who spoke of retaliation. But he said to them, over and over, you don't win with violence. You instead exchange fear for courage."

Lewis was on the bridge in Selma on what came to be known as "Bloody Sunday," when peaceful protestors tried to cross.

He was struck on the head with a club by a state police officer.

"I thought I saw death, and I was going to die on that bridge," he recalled in an interview several years ago with ABC13 anchor Melanie Lawson.

RELATED: John Lewis talks to ABC13 about 'Bloody Sunday'

Lewis was elected to Congress from his district in Atlanta in the 80s, and approached civil rights from a legislative perspective.

Over the years, he was known as the "Conscience of Congress."

In his final years, Lewis was on the receiving end of one of President Trump's tweets in which the president described him as being "all talk, no action or results."

Today, there was a two-sentence tweet in which he said he was "saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our thoughts and prayers to his family."

Sylvester Turner announced flags will be lowered to half staff in honor of the civil rights leader who paved the way for a new generation of activists, continuing the call for change.

In 1963, Lewis was part of the march in Washington, and until his death today, was the last living person of the six people who organized the march that made history with Dr. King's speech that began with "I had a dream."

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