John Lewis Fights Cancer

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U.S. Rep. John Lewis, 33-year member of Congress for Atlanta and stalwart of the civil rights movement, has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, the AJC and others reported Sunday evening.

“I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” Lewis said in a statement to the public. “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.”

Lewis, 79, has served since Jan 6, 1987.  He serves on the Ways and Means committee and chairs the subcommittee on oversight.

He is also the last living person to have spoken at the Washington March of 1963, as the then-23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Lewis transfixed America when, on March 7, 1965 — Bloody Sunday — he and fellow Atlanta activist Hosea Williams led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. State troopers beat him and other unconscious in a televised attack on the march, which galvanized opposition to segregation in America. It was only one of many beatings Lewis took from white supremacist segregationists as an activist.

He’s a tough man. I admire him more than, perhaps, any public figure serving today. And I refuse to eulogize someone with his constitution until the fighting is over. But this ain’t good trouble.

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This is a political blog, and I will offer the cold political assessment professionals might expect.

With gerrymandered congressional districts and black voters concentrated in a small number of districts, a congressional seat has — up until the victory of Barack Obama — long been viewed as the highest political aspiration for black political figures.

That’s changing. It has changed. It might be fair to say that John Lewis helped change it, actually.

The political class of Atlanta has beaten back earlier challenges to Lewis (looking at you, Markel) with coordinated ferocity. African Americans in particular view Lewis as something like a living saint, the equivalent of some distant historical figure like Davy Crockett, though one you might run into at Mary Mac’s on Ponce every now and then.

But — quietly and respectfully, I’m sure — conversations have been had about what happens … when. An open 5th Congressional District seat in Atlanta is literally a once-in-a-lifetime event that will begin a political piranha swarm. A dozen contenders — half of whom will have no business running — will emerge, and a cascade of open seats down ballot will follow.

The question for me is not whether someone will be crass enough to announce their intentions before Lewis finishes chemotherapy. It’s which one will leap first.

Atlanta politics are disorderly. There is no clear way to avert chaos in the wake of losing Lewis … and all of us who watch this stuff know it.

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