In 2010, days after returning from Selma, Ala., Mike Pence went on a GOP website and gushed about “my friend” John Lewis.
Then a congressman from Indiana's 6th District, Pence said he was “honored” to walk beside a man personally recruited by Martin Luther King Jr. He talked about how an officer had bashed a younger Lewis in the head during the fight for voting rights. Lewis, he said, was “an integral part of the American story in our nation's unrelenting march toward a more perfect union.”
Now Vice President-elect Pence is one of many leaders picking sides between Lewis and President-elect Donald Trump. Lewis recently called Trump an illegitimate president and Trump responded that the civil rights icon is “all talk.”
In the past year, Trump has gotten into public disputes with a beauty queen and the Muslim parents of a dead soldier. But on the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Trump went back and forth with a man whom John McCain once called “one of the most respected men in America.”
It's a widely held opinion. For a lifetime of civil rights work, Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Last year, the Navy announced it would name a ship after him, making Lewis one of just a few " to get that honor.
The Lewis-Trump fracas started Saturday, when Lewis told NBC's “Meet the Press” that he didn't see Trump as a legitimate president and wouldn't be attending the inauguration for the first time in 30 years.
Trump struck back on Twitter, saying that Lewis needed to focus on his congressional district in Georgia, “which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results.”
Trump said Lewis is “All talk, talk, talk — no action or results.”
Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to......
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S. I can use all the help I can get!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 15, 2017
Lewis's statements made him the first prominent Democrat to claim that Russia's alleged hacking of the presidential election made Trump's presidency illegitimate.
The feud dominated TV news shows just days before the inauguration. And it contributed to a growing number of lawmakers who have said they will not be attending the inauguration.
Lawmakers rushed to take sides, including many whom Lewis had invited on trips to Selma, the site of the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” protests.
Most notably, Republicans spoke out in defense of Lewis and his legacy — even those who disagreed with his policies.
Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) said he disagreed with calling the election illegitimate but said Lewis “deserves all of our respect. He's earned it.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) riffed on Trump's tweets in defending Lewis: “John Lewis and his 'talk' have changed the world.”
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) replied to one of Trump's tweets about Lewis with: “Dude, just stop.”
A few, such as Pence, tore into Lewis.
In an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Pence said he respects “the sacrifice” Lewis made, according to the Associated Press. But Pence said Lewis is making “baseless assertions” about the election.
The most recent statements from lawmakers were a stream of bipartisan respect for Lewis's role in American history.
— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) January 14, 2017
— Fox News (@FoxNews) January 15, 2017
Last week, for example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tweeted a picture of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has a controversial civil rights record, with Lewis, trying to make the case that the man nominated for attorney general has “a strong record” on civil rights.
In 2008, Lewis accused presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) of “sowing the seeds of hatred and division.” Even then, according to CNN, McCain called Lewis “one of the most respected people in America” and “an American hero whom I admire.”
— Leader McConnell (@SenateMajLdr) January 11, 2017
During a Black History Month celebration in February 2008, President George W. Bush spoke of the march from Selma to Montgomery, and of Lewis.
“Congressman John Lewis earned his place in history long before winning a seat in the United States Capitol,” Bush said. “More than 40 years later, John Lewis continues to inspire us — and we're blessed to have him here today.”
Lewis led sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters and was one of the original Freedom Riders who integrated buses, according to his House biography. He was once the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he helped form. The confrontation on Bloody Sunday left him with a skull fracture.
He is senior chief deputy whip for the Democratic Party in the House and a member of the subcommittee on income security and family support.
But for many, evidence of his bipartisan goodwill can be found when he returns to Selma. Lewis has frequently taken politicians from both sides of the aisle to the city for a personal lesson in civil rights history. Among the invitees: President Obama and former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Lewis said on “Meet the Press” that he would not extend an invitation to Trump.