A week before Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) laid down his marker: Trump would not be his president, and Lewis would not afford him any of the respect that comes with the office.
“I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president,” Lewis said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” a week before Trump was sworn into office. “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected and they have destroyed the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”
Lewis, a congressman from Georgia since 1987, passed away on Friday, and leaves behind a legacy as one of the nation’s leading civil rights activists.
He was the first prominent Democrat to question Trump’s legitimacy as president. Though Lewis was referencing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, his comments were also a response to Trump’s birtherism: For years, Trump was one of the leaders pushing the racist conspiracy theory, which falsely claimed that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Some Democrats supported Lewis, but plenty also distanced themselves from him and said he had gone too far. They wanted to give Trump ― who had received fewer votes than Clinton ― a chance.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) called Lewis’ remarks “nonproductive” and Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, said Trump was “freely elected.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called them “just words,” praising Lewis for calling out Trump’s racism but refusing to go as far as saying he was an illegitimate president.
But Lewis was willing to stick his neck out against Trump, both as the “conscience of the Congress” and as a member of the Democratic leadership.
Trump turned his ire on Lewis in return, tweeting out a characterization of his district (the same one he would later use against another black civil rights leader in Congress, the late Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings), saying it was in “horrible shape and falling apart” and “crime-infested.” (That is not what the district is like at all.)
Lewis refused to go to Trump’s inauguration. He wasn’t the first Democratic member of Congress to say he wouldn’t go, but after Trump attacked him, dozens more joined him in sitting out the event.
He was involved in activism for most of his life, most notably as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee ― which he helped create ― during the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He was known as one of “Big Six” leaders of the movement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Alabama state troopers fractured Lewis’ head in March 1965 when he and more than 600 peaceful demonstrators walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what is now known as Bloody Sunday, an attempt to march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Lewis kept that commitment to civil rights in Congress and continued to speak up after Trump had taken office. In January 2018, after Trump reportedly referred to Haiti and some African nations as “shithole countries,” Lewis said the president’s “words and his actions tend to speak like one who knows something about being a racist. It must be in his DNA, in his makeup.”
As the impeachment investigation into Trump proceeded throughout the second half of 2019, Lewis stayed silent until September, likely due in part to his close relationship with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was against impeachment until then.
However, given his previous comments, there seemed to be little doubt about where he stood. Many Democratic House members said that they believed that Lewis, a moral figure who commanded universal respect, could help swing momentum in favor of impeachment in a unique way.
When Lewis finally spoke out in support of impeaching Trump, he gave an emotional speech on the House floor.
“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, do something,” he said. “Our children and their children will ask us: ‘What did you do? What did you say?’”