Waco hospital officials said they are looking for ways to relieve their overburdened staff members, but they are not concerned with their facilities’ ability to handle the current surge in COVID-19 patients, as McLennan County’s case count reached almost 3,300 this past week and the death toll reached 24.
For weeks, four to eight COVID-19 patients on average were in Waco hospitals. That number jumped to 60 and then past 70 in the past two weeks, according to the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District.
“Those should be dramatic numbers for our community that speak for themselves,” said Dr. Jim Morrison, chief medical officer of Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center.
Hillcrest and Ascension Providence Medical Center have started to implement elements of surge plans they developed when COVID-19 was first spreading locally. Local government officials have also identified an alternative care site that could be set up in a matter of days if it were to become necessary.
McLennan County saw exponential growth in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19, starting in mid-June, with more patients being treated in hospitals. Local health officials said last week that trend is leveling off, with consistent spread still occurring, but at least one person has died from COVID-19 complications almost every day for the past two weeks.
Two more COVID-19 deaths were reported Saturday, bringing the count to nine this past week, more than a third of the county’s COVID-19 total since the first death was announced March 31. Twenty of the county’s 24 deaths have occurred since mid-June.
As of Saturday, there were 71 patients in Waco’s two hospitals. Out of those 71 patients, 43 are in the intensive care unit at either Ascension Providence Hospital or Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center, including 15 patients who are on ventilators, according to the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District. With 81 new cases reported Saturday, the county’s total stands at 3,291.
Hospital officials said those hospitalization and intensive care unit numbers change constantly, making it difficult for them to pinpoint a certain number of patients that would overload their facilities.
Still, the spike in hospitalizations in the past month is worrisome for both hospital systems.
And both hospitals treat patients from outside McLennan County, either from surrounding counties or from requests from other hospitals, sometimes as far as South Texas, a region of the state experiencing a larger surge, said Dr. Brian Becker, chief medical officer of Ascension Providence.
Both Becker and Morrison at Hillcrest said their concerns stem mainly from staffing issues, as health care workers become overworked or sometimes sick themselves. They are not worried about running out of beds or equipment to treat patients because they prepared surge plans that involve converting other parts of the hospitals into makeshift critical care units.
In the past two weeks, the hospitals have used some of this surge space, as the number of hospitalizations climbed. Together, both hospitals have another 54 beds they can add to their existing 54 intensive care unit beds that have been freed up by postponing elective procedures, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said.
Deaver and McLennan County Judge Scott Felton, along with other city and county officials, talk with hospital leaders, Family Health Center leaders and health district staff every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to stay abreast of the local COVID-19 situation. Both Deaver and Felton said hospital officials have expressed concern over their nursing and respiratory therapist staff.
“The medical community is stretched thin,” Felton said. “They have been working so long it’s wearing on them.”
Deaver agreed, saying workers are tired and stressed out. Some have been affected by COVID-19, either themselves or a family member, and have had to stop working. If that trend continues, the hospitals may have to lean on their networks to bring in additional staff.
Although both hospitals have assured local leaders they have enough space to treat COVID-19 patients, the city and county have contracted with McLennan Community College to use the Highlander Gym as an alternative care site, if necessary. Previously, the entities contracted with a long-term care facility that has since been put up for sale. Deaver said that facility would have been easier to stand up because it was already a medical facility, but it would take three to five days to get the Highlander Gym ready.
“We won’t wait until the last minute to stand it up,” he said. “We will do it at the point we feel like there’s a reasonable possibility of us using it.”
Both hospitals typically operate at about 80% to 95% capacity, which fluctuates daily, but that does not give them much “slack,” Morrison said. Currently, Hillcrest and Providence are able to take care of everyone who enters their doors, although the hospitals have had to use some of their surge capacity they have been building for four months, as hospitalizations increased over the past few weeks.
“Once we have to start utilizing that, that means other essential services that we normally provide in the community are starting to be curtailed to some extent, just based on the availability of space, equipment and, most importantly, people,” Morrison said. “We’re feeling the impact, although we’re still able to provide care across the board in the community.”
Becker said Ascension Providence has seen a “significant loss in volume” in the past week with the climb in COVID-19 hospitalizations. While the number of patients requiring treatment in a hospital has started to stabilize, the hospital is discussing ways to cut back on elective surgeries so staff can better manage the patients they have.
Like Hillcrest, Ascension Providence has enough beds for patients and is more concerned about having enough nursing staff to treat every patient, Becker said.
“Both hospital systems have been in conversations since February on a weekly basis, looking at how do we plan and prepare for a surge,” he said. “We were successful at averting it initially. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen a surge, and those plans that we put in place three months ago, we began to dip into that a little bit in the last week or two.”
The surge plans have worked as they were supposed to, allowing staff to manage and treat the increase in patients, Becker said. The hospitals never reached capacity established in their initial surge response plans and still have plenty of additional beds and rooms for patients.
But the demand placed on health care workers has been tremendous, as they care for COVID-19 patients and everyone else who comes through the hospital doors.
“To take care of these very sick patients takes a group of extremely skilled, highly valuable people, and it’s a precious resource,” Morrison said. “We’re putting a lot of demand on them right now.”
If McLennan County continues to see high numbers of patients requiring hospital treatment, the next stage of surge plans include converting other areas of the hospital into critical care areas for new COVID-19 patients, Morrison said.
Becker said the hospitals also started procuring equipment, such as ventilators, and retraining staff a couple of months ago to be prepared for a surge in COVID-19 patients. Almost every staff member in the hospital has been trained in some way to step in and help treat patients who require critical care.
For the Ascension network, the hospital can request equipment from a nationwide purchasing program once a need is identified, and generally the hospital system can meet individual hospital requests within a day, Becker said. Additionally, Ascension has a program that allows frontline health care workers and other critical staff to travel for temporary assignments to areas with staff shortages, coming and going to places like Michigan and Florida.
Similarly, the Hillcrest hospital can rely on the Baylor Scott & White network, which is not as large or geographically dispersed as Ascension, Morrison said. Baylor Scott & White’s network is only within Texas, but it has partnered with other health care organizations to shift staff around as needed. For equipment, the hospital only has to reach out to its partners down the road in Temple, where a major distribution center is located, Morrison said. Hillcrest has not had to rely on this center yet, and the hospital still has ventilators the Texas State Technical College lent it months ago.
Both Becker and Morrison said they hope they do not have to rely on their networks and that people take care of themselves and each other by following public health guidelines.
“Now is the time to be doing the things we know we can do,” Morrison said. “Wear your mask when you’re in public, wash your hands frequently and maintain social distancing, especially in indoor settings.”
A fast-rising rising tide of new coronavirus cases is flooding emergency rooms in parts of the United States, with some patients moved into hallways and nurses working extra shifts to keep up with the surge.
Patients struggling to breathe are being placed on ventilators in emergency wards since intensive care units are full, officials say, and the near-constant care they require is overtaxing workers who also are treating more typical ER cases like chest pains, infections, and fractures.
In Texas, Dr. Alison Haddock of the Baylor College of Medicine said the current situation is worse than after Hurricane Harvey, which swamped Houston with floodwaters in 2017. The state reported a new daily record for virus deaths Friday and more than 10,000 confirmed cases for the fourth consecutive day.
“I’ve never seen anything like this COVID surge,” said Haddock, who has worked in emergency rooms since 2007. “We’re doing our best, but we’re not an ICU.”
Patients are waiting “hours and hours” to get admitted, she said, and the least sick people are lying in beds in halls to make room for most seriously ill.
Around Seattle, which was the nation’s first hot spot for the virus that causes COVID-19, a new wave of patients is showing up at emergency departments, said nurse Mike Hastings.
“What’s really frustrating from my side of it is when a patient comes into the emergency department, and is not really having symptoms of COVID, but they feel like they need that testing,” said Hastings, who works at an area hospital and is president of the Emergency Nurses Association. “Sometimes we’re not able to test them because we don’t have enough test supplies, so we’re only testing a certain set of patients.”
In Florida, another state that is seeing surging case numbers, hospitals say they are in desperate need of remdesivir — a medication that has been shown to shorten average hospitalization times — to treat the coronavirus patients who are filling up beds.
In response, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced 30,000 vials of the drug were being shipped to the state — enough to treat about 5,000 patients.
On Saturday, the state reported more than 10,000 new cases of the virus and 90 additional deaths.
Confirmed coronavirus cases around the world have surpassed 14 million, and deaths neared 600,000, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University. On Friday, the World Health Organization reported a single-day record of new infections at over 237,000. The true toll of the pandemic is thought to be higher, in part because of shortages in testing and shortcomings in data collection.
The United States, Brazil and India top the list of cases. South Africa — with 337,000 cases, roughly half of all confirmed infections in Africa — was poised to join the top five countries most affected by the pandemic.
In the United States, where infections are soaring in many Sunbelt states, Megan Jehn, associate professor of epidemiology at Arizona State Universtiy in Tempe, said it’s important to monitor emergency room visits since increases there can signal that the virus is spreading more rapidly.
But it’s difficult to get a complete picture of how emergency rooms are faring in many places. In Arizona, one of the few states that reports data on visits to the emergency room by people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 symptoms, numbers started to spike in early June and peaked earlier this month. More than 2,000 people went to an ER with coronavirus symptoms on a single day, July 7.
On Friday, COVID-19-related hospitalization figures for Arizona were near but below recent records set after the state became a national hot spot.
Dr. Robert Hancock, who works at multiple hospitals in Texas and Oklahoma and serves as president of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians, said some Texas emergency rooms are facing backups of patients awaiting ICU beds. And many of them are on ventilators, meaning they require more attention than other patients.
“Unfortunately, because of the increased demand for personnel, there typically isn’t anybody free to come down to the ER to help a lot of times from a nursing standpoint,” he said.
Burnout could await these health workers, as it did some in New York City, when it was the epicenter of the nation’s outbreak in the spring.
Emergency rooms doctors and nurses were caught off guard by the relentless stream of severely sick patients during shifts that often lasted 12 hours, said Dr. Bernard P. Chang of New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.
“You were on high alert the whole shift,” Chang said. “It was a brutal, sustained battle.”
Waco Police continue to enforce wearing masks in public places, and a spokesperson applauded recent decisions by Walmart, Target, Kohl’s, CVS Pharmacy and others to require face coverings in their stores.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that masks be worn in public places where social distancing is not feasible. But as COVID-19 numbers rise, more retailers are taking it on themselves to impose their own rules, even where government rules are not in place.
Waco police Officer Garen Bynum said customers who refuse to wear masks in stores that require them could face criminal trespass charges, misdemeanors that can result in arrest.
“If a store wants to push it, that’s an option we will run with,” Bynum said. “If a person refuses to comply with the order, refuses to cooperate with the store, we can take the criminal trespass approach. In these cases, the store owner or management is considered the victim.”
In the past two weeks, the department has focused on educating the public instead of writing citations based on Abbott’s mask order, which could produce fines up to $250.
“This allows us to connect with the community, not in a negative light,” Bynum said. “We talk about the importance of wearing a mask and provide one if they don’t have one. So far I’ve heard we’re having good, positive interactions. We’re not approaching people with a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ attitude.”
Bynum said big-box retailers such as Walmart and Target are performing admirably in monitoring people entering their properties.
“We actually went inside some of these bigger retailers … and there are a lot of people in and out. We can’t follow every customer around,” Bynum said. “The stores mandating the wearing of masks helps us quite a bit, allows us to focus on other places besides these larger stores.”
Target, Kohl’s, CVS Pharmacy, Starbucks and Kroger issued orders this week similar to Walmart’s. H-E-B, with five Greater Waco locations, ordered the wearing of masks last month.
The new Walmart initiative, effective Monday, includes Sam’s Club stores.
Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said he considers the trend a positive step.
“I think it demonstrates recognition that a growing body of data and evidence suggests masks do work,” Deaver said. “Retailers are realizing they need to protect employees and customers. I have an appointment Monday for a physical, and my doctor’s office reminded me to wear a mask.”
McLennan County Judge Scott Felton agreed that enforcement, and compliance, may come more easily as mask wearing becomes commonplace.
“We are all creatures of habit,” Felton said. “I’m still having to remind myself to put on a mask before going to a public place. What these retailers are doing probably does reinforce the idea that masks are required, making it more of a natural instinct. The governor called that shot for Texas. There is a difference of opinion on whether masks work. Some say it provides protection for the wearer, probably moreso for the person nearby.”
Nationally, there have been reports of customers venting their frustration, or anger, over mask-wearing requirements inside retail establishments.
A Walmart customer in Louisiana refused to wear a mask and backed into a police officer trying to jot down his license plate number. At a Walmart in South Florida, a customer pulled a gun on another after a dispute police reported was over masks.
Deaver said he has heard of no confrontations involving Waco Police officers and shoppers as the city enforces the wearing of masks in public areas.
“We’re not having altercations, no arguments with citizens,” Deaver said, based on his conversations with city management. “We have had to issue a couple of verbal warnings. People say, ‘Oh, I forgot mine,’ when asked about why they weren’t wearing a mask. We offer to give them one.”
Target said Thursday it would require all customers to wear face coverings at its stores starting Aug. 1, exempting patrons with underlying conditions and young children. The Minnesota-based retailing chain said more than 80% of its stores already require masks, which would include Waco’s.
Walmart explained its approach in a statement by Chief Operating Officer Dacona Smith.
“As the number of confirmed cases has spiked in communities across the country recently, so too have the number and types of face covering mandates being implemented,” Smith wrote.
About 65% of the company’s stores are in areas with government mask rules, she said. That would include the four in the Waco area.
“While we’re certainly not the first business to require face coverings, we know this is a simple step everyone can take for their safety and the safety of others in our facilities,” Smith wrote.
Local Walmart staffers and managers referred comment to corporate spokespeople. They said Walmart indeed already instructs patrons entering stores to wear masks to comply with Abbott’s orders.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, face coverings help decrease the spread of COVID-19. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said Tuesday that if everyone in the country began wearing a mask now, the virus could be controlled within four to eight weeks, according to reporting by yahoo.com.
The National Retail Federation is encouraging all retailers to adopt a face covering policy to protect workers and customers.
“We hope today’s announcement by Walmart — the world’s largest retailer — that it will be enforcing a policy requiring customers to wear a mask to shop in their stores is a tipping point in this public health debate,” a federation press release states. “Workers serving customers should not have to make a critical decision as to whether they should risk exposure to infection or lose their jobs because a minority of people refuse to wear masks in order to help stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.”
Planning, persistence and patience have been keys for the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Fugitive Apprehension and Special Tasks unit, which has helped locate hundreds of wanted suspects throughout the state in each of its five years in operation.
In one instance, unit supervisor Lt. Cody Blossman and unit members listened to the tunes of wanted man playing guitar at an open mic night at a Fort Worth bar in late 2018. After the session, Blossman and his FAST officers applauded, stepped up for a brief introduction and took the man into custody for a year-old Waco warrant on a felony theft charge.
“I told Cody not to come back without him,” Sheriff Parnell McNamara said, recalling the story. “They called me much later in the night saying they got him. Then I asked what took so long, and Cody said he was on stage when they found him playing guitar and he was actually pretty good.”
McNamara said that arrest in Fort Worth likely slowed thefts and other crimes in the state connected to that suspect, and he attributed the unit’s more than 1,350 arrests to constant attention to detail. The unit, comprised of Blossman and four others, has assisted in local, regional and federal investigations to find suspects who have been wanted on a variety of charges, often felonies, and reduce continued crime, the sheriff said.
“I heard one day that there had been 17 people that were set for court for either sentencing or some type of hearing and they did not show up, so judges put a $250,00 bond on every one of them,” said McNamara, who worked 32 years with the U.S. Marshals Service. “With the U.S. Marshals, when we had no shows for court, we had to immediately go after them, so at the time there was no unit in the sheriff’s office that we could get to immediately respond to this problem.”
Modeled, in part, after Marshals Service fugitive task forces, the FAST unit focuses on finding people wanted on charges involving violent crimes who have failed to show up for court, giving them the fugitive label. In the past five years, the FAST unit has cleared more than 1,475 felony warrants and 830 misdemeanor warrants.
“Our patrol, Waco PD street crimes, Waco PD CCAST (Career Criminal Apprehension and Supervision Team), Waco PD patrol, and a lot of other departments that ask for help, we’ve been able to network and help as much as everyone has helped us since the start,” Blossman said. “We’ve made great relationships in Bosque County, Bell County, Limestone County and others to where now the exchange of information and having things checked out for wanted offenders really helps streamline the process.”
The FAST unit reached its five-year mark in June with members Sgt. Chris Evans and investigators Sam Blano, Jason Sandell, and Kevin Reyna. Each officer is deputized as a U.S. Marshal and serves on the Marshals Service’s Lone Star Fugitive Task Force.
Unit members also routinely train and work with SWAT team members, officials said. Training, specifically concerning entry into homes, lawful arrest provisions and tactical operations, is a key focus for the unit as laws and roles of police are continually evolving, Blossman said.
“The guys in my unit could not work harder and they could not be more motivated and dedicated to the job they do,” Blossman said. “They see the good that it does in the field and they also see all the harm that they are preventing by doing this job.”
Routinely, the unit collaborates with Waco police and other nearby agencies to help find wanted subjects. Evans, one of the first officers selected for the unit five years ago, said the work is a passion for him.
“We can be called out at any moment to go to a SWAT call, to go find a wanted person or for any (special task),” Evans said. “When we get called, we get called to the baddest subjects, the biggest criminals or some of the most dangerous criminals and getting those people, because I think we can shut a lot of crime down before it starts by getting people in jail before causing more harm in the communities.”
Almost $400,000 of the sheriff’s office’s annual $11.5-million enforcement budget has gone to help officers expand their reach and help other agencies find subjects “on the run,” McNamara said.
“Everyone knows if they need help, they can just call the FAST boys and we will help,” McNamara said. “They have the flexibility to go across the state and whenever they need when another agency calls.”
In May, Bray’shon Negale Cummings, 31, was arrested in a joint-operation with Waco police and the Falls County Sheriff’s Office after a shooting outside Marlin that left a man critically injured. FAST officers found Cummings in East Waco and arrested him on an aggravated assault warrant.
Last year, FAST officers and the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force helped find SirOcean Unique Calhoun, then 17, who was wanted in the shooting death of his uncle, Willie Steve Kiser, 31. The shooting also left an 11-year-old boy with severe injuries.
Douglas Eric Hill, then 28, of DeBerry, Texas, fired multiple rounds at FAST officers who were trying to arrest him near North Valley Mills and Lake Air drives on a warrant out of Louisiana, officials said at the time. Officers returned fire and injured Hill. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment before he was jailed on other felony charges.
Officers captured Christopher Paul Weiss, then 26, in a vehicle in Temple after investigators secured a capital murder warrant against him in the shooting deaths of Valarie Martinez, 24, and her 1-year-old daughter, Azariah. The two were shot and killed at Tradinghouse Lake in 2017.
In the unit’s five-year report, Blossman said the unit does not get “do overs,” so planning, knowledge, and adhering to the highest level of safety standards helps prevent harm to officers, bystanders and suspects alike.
“Serving warrants at times can be dangerous to the community, suspects, and law enforcement,” he wrote. “One reason for this is these events can be tense, rapidly evolving situations where there are no do overs. The success rate and safety to all parties involved goes up when having personnel with the proper training, equipment, and experience resolve the situations.”
WASHINGTON — People paid great heed to John Lewis for much of his life in the civil rights movement. But at the very beginning — when he was just a kid wanting to be a minister someday — his audience didn’t care much for what he had to say.
A son of Alabama sharecroppers, the young Lewis first preached moral righteousness to his family’s chickens. His place in the vanguard of the 1960s campaign for Black equality had its roots in that hardscrabble Alabama farm and all those clucks.
Lewis, who died Friday at age 80, was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists who organized the 1963 March on Washington, and spoke shortly before the group’s leader, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech to a vast sea of people.
If that speech marked a turning point in the civil rights era — or at least the most famous moment — the struggle was far from over. Two more hard years passed before truncheon-wielding state troopers beat Lewis bloody and fractured his skull as he led 600 protesters over Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Searing TV images of that brutality helped to galvanize national opposition to racial oppression and embolden leaders in Washington to pass the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act five months later.
“The American public had already seen so much of this sort of thing, countless images of beatings and dogs and cursing and hoses,” Lewis wrote in his memoirs. “But something about that day in Selma touched a nerve deeper than anything that had come before.”
That bridge became a touchstone in Lewis’ life. He returned there often during his decades in Congress representing the Atlanta area, bringing lawmakers from both parties to see where “Bloody Sunday” went down.
More brutality would loom in his life’s last chapter. He wept watching the video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minnesota. “I kept saying to myself: How many more? How many young Black men will be murdered?” he said last month.
Yet he declared, or at least dared to hope: “We’re one people, we’re one family. We all live in the same house, not just the American house but the world house.”
Lewis earned bipartisan respect in Washington, where some called him the “conscience of Congress.” His humble manner contrasted with the puffed chests on Capitol Hill. But as a liberal on the losing side of many issues, he lacked the influence he’d summoned at the segregated lunch counters of his youth, or later, within the Democratic Party, as a steadfast voice for the poor and disenfranchised.
He was a guiding voice for a young Illinois senator who became the first Black president.
“I told him that I stood on his shoulders,” Obama wrote in a statement marking Lewis’s death. “When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made.”
Lewis was a 23-year-old firebrand, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, when he joined King and four other civil rights leaders at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York to plan and announce the Washington demonstration. The others were Whitney Young of the National Urban League; A. Philip Randolph of the Negro American Labor Council; James L. Farmer Jr., of the interracial Congress of Racial Equality; and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP.
At the National Mall months later, he had a speaking slot before King and toned down his intended remarks, bowing to pressure that “incensed” him.
“I wanted it to have an air of militancy,” Lewis said.
He dropped a reference to leading a “scorched earth” campaign across the South, like Civil War Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea. (“John, that doesn’t sound like you,” he recalled King telling him.) He scaled back criticism of President John Kennedy’s civil rights record.
It was a potent speech nonetheless. He vowed: “By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in an image of God and democracy.”
His words were soon and for all time overshadowed by the speech of King. “He changed us forever,” Lewis said of King’s oratory that day.
But the change the movement sought would take many more sacrifices.
After months of training in nonviolent protest, demonstrators led by Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams began a march of more than 50 miles from Selma to Alabama’s capital in Montgomery. They didn’t get far: On March 7, 1965, a phalanx of police blocked their exit from the Selma bridge. Authorities swung truncheons, fired tear gas and charged on horseback, sending many to the hospital. The nation was horrified.
“This was a face-off in the most vivid terms between a dignified, composed, completely nonviolent multitude of silent protesters and the truly malevolent force of a heavily armed, hateful battalion of troopers,” Lewis wrote. “The sight of them rolling over us like human tanks was something that had never been seen before. People just couldn’t believe this was happening, not in America.”
King swiftly returned to the scene with a multitude, and the march to Montgomery was made whole before the end of the month.
Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940, outside Troy, in Alabama’s Pike County. He attended segregated public schools and was denied a library card because of his race, but he read books and newspapers avidly, and could rattle off obscure historical facts even in his later years.
He was a teenager when he first heard King, then a young minister from Atlanta, preach on the radio. They met after Lewis wrote him seeking support to become the first Black student at his local college. He ultimately attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University instead, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Soon, the young man King nicknamed “the boy from Troy” was organizing sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters and volunteering as a Freedom Rider, enduring beatings and arrests while challenging segregation around the South. Lewis helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to organize this effort, led the group from 1963 to 1966 and kept pursuing civil rights work and voter registration drives for years thereafter.
President Jimmy Carter appointed Lewis to lead ACTION, a federal volunteer agency, in 1977. In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council, and then won a seat in Congress in 1986.
Humble and unfailingly friendly, Lewis was revered on Capitol Hill. When Democrats controlled the House, he tried to keep them unified as his party’s senior deputy whip, a behind-the-scenes leadership post. The opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture was a key victory. But as one of the most liberal members of Congress, spending much of his career in the minority, he often lost policy battles, from his effort to stop the Iraq War to his defense of young immigrants.
Lewis also met bipartisan success in Congress in 2006 when he led efforts to renew the Voting Rights Act, but the Supreme Court invalidated much of the law in 2013, and it became once again what it was in his youth, a work in progress.
Lewis initially endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, but belatedly backed Obama when it became clear he had more Black support. After Obama’s swearing-in, he signed a commemorative photograph for Lewis that reflected much more than his endorsement, writing “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.” Later, they marched hand in hand in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the attack.
And when Obama was succeeded by a president who sought to dismantle much of his legacy, Lewis made no effort to hide his pain.
Lewis refused to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration, saying he didn’t consider him a “legitimate president” because Russians had conspired to get him elected. When Trump later complained about immigrants from “s---hole countries,” Lewis declared, “I think he is a racist ... we have to try to stand up and speak up and not try to sweep it under the rug.”
Trump ordered flags at half-staff at the White House and all federal public buildings and grounds, including embassies abroad and all military posts and naval stations, throughout the day Saturday.
“Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family,” Trump said via Twitter.
Lewis said he’d been arrested 40 times in the 1960s, five more as a congressman. At 78, he told a rally he’d do it again to help reunite immigrant families separated by the Trump administration.
“There cannot be any peace in America until these young children are returned to their parents and set all of our people free,” Lewis said. “If we fail to do it, history will not be kind to us,” he shouted. “I will go to the border. I’ll get arrested again. If necessary, I’m prepared to go to jail.”
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial diversity of the crowds protesting racism and police brutality gave him encouragement in his last weeks even as the unrest exposed anguished division that would not be overcome in his lifetime.
“It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds and thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets to speak up, to speak out,” he said on “CBS This Morning.”
He urged protesters seeking justice in Floyd’s killing and the authorities confronting them to be nonviolent, because “there’s something cleansing, something wholesome, about being peaceful and orderly.”
Lewis announced in late December 2019 that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.
“I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said at the time.
Lewis’ wife of four decades, Lillian Miles, died in 2012. They had one son, John Miles Lewis.
If the Voting Rights Act that Lewis cherished was a work in progress, so was America, Lewis observed as he spoke once again from the Lincoln Memorial, a half-century after the March on Washington.
“Fifty years later we can ride anywhere we want to ride, we can stay where we want to stay,” he said that day in August 2013. “Those signs that said ‘white’ and ’colored are gone. And you won’t see them anymore except in a museum, in a book, on a video.
“But there are still invisible signs buried in the hearts in humankind that form a gulf between us. Too many of us still believe our differences define us instead of the divine spark that runs through all of human creation.”
Then came the cheers and applause. This time he was no warm-up act for a giant of history. This was his moment, and there was not a cluck to be heard.