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DeWine, Brown, Portman pay respects to Lewis

Ohio’s elected officials are paying tribute to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, the civil rights champion and congressman of three decades who died Friday at age 80.

“Fran and I were very saddened to learn this morning of the death of our friend Congressman John Lewis,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said in a statement over the weekend.

The Ohio Republican said Lewis “changed America.”

“In 2004, when I was in the U.S. Senate, Congressman Lewis led a small group of lawmakers to Tennessee and Alabama and showed us history,” DeWine said. “He opened our eyes with first-hand accounts of the abuse and prejudice he experienced.  He told us about his time as a Freedom Rider, when he and fellow activists were badly beaten while riding buses throughout the South to protest segregation. He took us to the Rosa Parks Museum and the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Reverend King had been pastor and preached hope and perseverance.  We also walked with him to the Civil Rights Memorial, as he led us in singing “We Shall Overcome.”

DeWine said Lewis also took them to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where, on March 7, 1965 _ known as Bloody Sunday _ he and other civil rights protesters were attacked and beaten as they peacefully marched for voting rights.

Lewis was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, a group led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that had the greatest impact on the movement.

At age 25 — walking at the head of the march with his hands tucked in the pockets of his tan overcoat — Lewis was knocked to the ground and beaten by police. His skull was fractured, and nationally televised images of the brutality forced the country’s attention on racial oppression in the South.

Within days, King led more marches in the state, and President Lyndon Johnson soon was pressing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. The bill became law later that year, removing barriers that had barred Blacks from voting.

“Fran and I had taken our two youngest children, Mark and Anna, with us, and we will all be forever grateful to John for what he taught us on that journey,” DeWine said. “John Lewis was an extraordinary leader, teacher, and role model for us all. He left a legacy for which we all have a responsibility now to carry on.”

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown offered a tribute to his Democratic colleague in Congress.

“Today, our hearts are heavy as our nation mourns the loss of my friend Congressman John Lewis, an icon in the civil rights movement, the conscience of the Congress,” Brown said. “From the age of 20, John risked his life fighting for justice and racial equality in this country. He was a man of courage, principle and tenacious faith.”

Brown said the first time he visited and walked across the bridge in Selma was “one of the most inspiring moments of my life.”

“Thirty-three years earlier, John Lewis and other civil rights activists marched in nonviolent resistance against the brutality and hate they faced in order to create change for our country,” Brown said. “Throughout his life, John walked across bridge after bridge to fight for justice, to embrace everyone with his kindness and generosity, to help anyone in need, to listen and to understand.”

Brown called Lewis “our guiding star.”

“He was a freedom fighter and we all must continue his fight,” he said. “We will honor his legacy by finally tearing down the walls of racial inequality in this country and ensuring that all Americans will have full and equal participation in our democracy. May he rest in peace as he joins his beloved wife of 44 years, Lillian. Connie and I pray for his son, John-Miles and the Lewis family.”

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, described Lewis as “a civil rights icon who committed his life to fighting for justice and equality.”

“I was honored to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives with him, where he helped us establish the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in my hometown of Cincinnati,” Portman said. “I have been blessed to call this gracious man my friend.”

 Like the others, Portman also recalled a trip to Selma with Lewis, when he traveled there for the 50th anniversary of the march.

In Selma on that 50th anniversary, John Lewis brought together elected officials of both parties, including President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush, in support of the civil rights movement, and the dignity, civility, and non-violence that John stood for,” DeWine said. “We will all miss his presence. Jane and I lift up his family in prayer during this difficult time.”

There have been efforts for the bridge, which is named for Confederate general, Ku Klux Klan grand dragon and U.S. Sen. Edmund Pettus, to be renamed in Lewis’ honor.

Portman said such a move would be “an appropriate tribute” to Lewis.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story