Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, beloved civil rights icon, says he has pancreatic cancer

Rep. John Lewis, one of the lions of the U.S. civil rights movement, announced Sunday he is suffering from Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, triggering a wave of prayerful wishes for the Georgia Democrat’s recovery.

The 79-year-old congressman likened his fight against the disease to his role in the epic struggle against racial discrimination that convulsed the American South and beyond in the 1960s.

Now serving his 17th term in office, Lewis pledged in a statement to remain in the House of Representatives, serving Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, north of Atlanta, while he is being treated for his cancer.

“I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life,” he said. Lewis said he had been given the diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer — one of the most difficult cancers to treat, with bleak survival rates — earlier this month after a routine medical checkup.

Even while acknowledging that “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” Lewis, who is one of the most widely admired figures in Congress, voiced calm optimism.

“I may miss a few votes during this period, but with God’s grace I will be back on the front lines soon,” he said in his statement.

In his youth, those front lines were more than merely figurative for Lewis, the Alabama-born son of sharecroppers who placed himself in physical jeopardy again and again in the nascent days of the civil rights movement. Arrested dozens of times, he was seriously injured during the 1965 march for voting rights in Selma, Ala.

March 7, 1965, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, found a place in the annals of history — and of Hollywood, commemorated in the 2014 film “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay. Learning of Lewis’ illness, the director posted late Sunday on Twitter: “Dear Congressman. You are loved. You are respected. You are magnificent. Lifting you up in prayer, peace and the power of your ancestors this day.”

A lifelong adherent of nonviolence, Lewis’ contemporaries in the “Big Six” of the civil rights movement included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., slain in 1968. He was among the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which employed tactics such as lunch-counter demonstrations and voter-registration drives.

Characteristically, Lewis’ statement disclosing his illness was both bluntly realistic and hopeful. Also characteristically, he asked for prayers.

“While I am clear-eyed about the prognosis, doctors have told me that recent medical advances have made this type of cancer treatable in many cases, that treatment options are no longer as debilitating as they once were, and that I have a fighting chance,” he said.

The congressman’s announcement triggered an outpouring on social media, with admirers hailing him as a hero and a national treasure.

“Praying for you, my friend,” former President Obama wrote on Twitter, praising Lewis’ “incomparable will to fight.”

Lewis is “America’s conscience and Georgia’s heart,” tweeted Stacey Abrams, Georgia’s former gubernatorial candidate for whom the congressman campaigned passionately. “We stand by him as he fights one more battle.”

“There is no living politician in America with greater moral authority,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) wrote on Twitter. “Tonight many around the nation and the world pray for him.”

Lewis, who was known for the preacher-like cadences of his oratory, delivered an emotional address on the floor of the House earlier this year in condemnation of racist tweets by President Trump.

“I know racism when I see it; I know racism when I feel it,” the Georgia Democrat said prior to a House vote to condemn presidential tweets attacking four congresswomen of color. “And at the highest level of government, there’s no room for racism.”

Like nearly all his fellow House Democrats, Lewis voted earlier this month in favor of impeaching Trump, framing it in terms of a “moral obligation.”

“Be on the right side of history,” he urged lawmakers during the marathon Dec. 18 debate that resulted in two articles of impeachment – for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – being approved against the president.

But the momentous events of more than half a century earlier echoed down to the present day. The 1965 confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, on the outskirts of Selma, was a seminal moment in the fight for voting rights. Hundreds of peaceful marchers were setting off on the march to the state Capitol in Montgomery when they were set upon by Alabama state troopers with truncheons and whips.

Badly beaten, Lewis — only 25 at the time — suffered a skull fracture and other serious injuries. The harrowing episode drew nationwide attention and a burst of activism that included subsequent demonstrations in dozens of cities that helped pave the way for congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the statement announcing his illness, Lewis alluded to that day.

“We still have many bridges to cross,” he said.

Times staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report from Washington.

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