Lewis, who had been suffering from pancreatic cancer, campaigned for civil rights to the very end of his life. A founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis became its chair in 1963 and helped organise the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I have a dream” speech. He was the youngest and last survivor of the “Big Six” civil rights activists, a group led by King.
Sharing his moving statement on Instagram, Obama wrote: “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 US senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders. 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.
“And through all those years, he never stopped providing wisdom and encouragement to me and Michelle and our family. We will miss him dearly.
He added: “It’s fitting that the last time John and I shared a public forum was at a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists who were helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“Afterwards, I spoke to him privately, and he could not have been prouder of their efforts … I told him that all those young people – of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation – they were his children. They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it.
“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 heard of his courage only through history books.”
Obama finished, writing: “Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did. And thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise.”
Hillary Clinton has also shared a tribute, writing: “John Lewis was the truest kind of patriot. He believed America could be better, even live up to its highest founding ideals of equality & liberty for all. He made good trouble to help us get there. Now it’s up to the rest of us to carry on his work. Rest in power, my friend.”
Bernice King, American minister and daughter of King, has also added: “Farewell, sir. You did, indeed, fight the good fight and get into a lot of good trouble. You served God and humanity well. Thank you. Take your rest.”