'He was the soul of America': Bay Area leaders remember congressman, civil rights icon John Lewis

ByCornell Barnard KGO logo
Sunday, July 19, 2020
Bay Area remembers Congressman John Lewis
Tributes are pouring in from around the world to remember Congressman John Lewis who died Friday at 80.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Tributes are pouring in from around the world to remember Congressman John Lewis who died Friday at 80-years-old.

Many in the Bay Area who knew Congressman John Lewis are mourning his loss. They say his amazing legacy on equality and civil rights will endure.

"He was the soul of America in many ways, he made me a better man," said Jeff Steinberg.

Steinberg is the founder of Bay Area-based Sojourn Project, an academic program teaching students lessons from the civil rights movement, by taking them to where it happened. He says John Lewis was a friend and mentor.

Lewis partnered with Steinberg sharing his remarkable story of struggle with almost 90 sojourn groups, leading some across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where Lewis and other peaceful demonstrators were beaten by police in 1965, known as Bloody Sunday.

"Who's more courageous than John Lewis? He was arrested over 40 times, beaten, yet always non-violent," said Steinberg.

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In 2015, the Georgia congressman spoke with ABC7 News about his front-row seat in the 1960's civil rights movement.

"You'd be sitting in an orderly fashion and someone would put a lighted cigarette out on your hair or on our backs, it happened," said Lewis in 2015.

East Bay Congresswoman Barbara Lee says Lewis was a close friend. She says he was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Lewis posed for a selfie near the Black Lives Matter mural in Washington DC.

"The civil rights movement, Selma. It was a movement of young people. John Lewis saw what young people are doing as a continuation in 2020 of that movement," said Lee.

Bay Area lawmakers and San Francisco's former and current mayors reacted to Lewis' death, honoring the congressman's impact.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed calls Lewis a true hero. She will honor John Lewis by lowering the flags at City Hall to half-staff. On Saturday night, City Hall will be lit in red, white and blue to pay tribute to the civil rights icon.

Mayor Willie Brown encouraged young people to carry on the civil rights icon's legacy of activism.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) had worked with Lewis for more than a decade in Congress.

The two had also traveled to Selma together three times.

"I can't begin to tell you the loss to this country that he represents because he could heal on both sides by his presence," she said. "He had a humility, as great a man as he was, he had this humility which few members of Congress have. And I just love him with all my heart."

Former San Francisco Mayor Brown had been friends with Lewis since his activist work in the 1960s.

Brown says young people can carry on Lewis' legacy by continuing the type of activism seen after the death of George Floyd.

PHOTOS: John Lewis through the years

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In this Oct. 10, 2007 photo, with the Capitol Dome in the background, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington.
AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson, File

"When the demonstrators took to the streets in America, if not all over the world, it brought a smile to John Lewis' face," Brown said. "Because for the first time, all the things he stood for was beginning to make sense to everybody in the world."

Lewis visited San Francisco many times over the years, often to support charities.

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

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also released a statement Friday night on Lewis' passing.

It read in part, "Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history: Congressman John Lewis, the Conscience of the Congress. John Lewis was a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation."

San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Saturday that flags in the city would lowered to half-staff in Lewis' honor.

City Hall will also be lit up in red, white and blue for the late congressman.

"He put his whole life into fighting the injustices that have long plagued this country, and he never stopped demonstrating unparalleled strength, perseverance, and dignity," Breed said on Twitter. "So many of us stand on his shoulders, and our hearts grieve for the loss of a true hero."