John Lewis Civil rights icon John Lewis (1940-2020) was a long-serving Democratic congressman of the Fifth Congressional District in the state of Georgia. Lewis became nationally known in the 1960s for his leadership in some of the most iconic events of the civil rights movement. As an adolescent, he was inspired by the events surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and by the inspirational speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., and he felt compelled to take an active role in the American civil rights movement in college. Lewis was one of the student leaders in organizing the Selma to Montgomery march and was among those who were beaten on Bloody Sunday while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He was a featured speaker before King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington, D.C., in 1963. Lewis remained at the vanguard of the civil rights movement until his death at the age of 80.
Born on February 21, 1940, in Pike County, John Lewis was one of ten children of sharecroppers Eddie and Willie Mae Carter Lewis. He attended local county schools. In 1957, after graduating from a segregated high school, Lewis hoped to attend nearby all-white Troy State College (now Troy University) to study for the ministry, but he knew that during this era of segregation no black students had been granted admission to the school. He also wanted to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, but the tuition costs were beyond the means of his family. After his mother brought home a brochure from American Baptist College, a predominantly African American institution in Nashville, Tennessee, Lewis decided to choose that school because students were permitted to work for the school in lieu of paying tuition. While at American Baptist, however, Lewis pondered transferring to Troy State and challenging segregation at the college and applied in December 1957. As typically happened when Black students applied to many southern universities, Lewis received no reply.
After about two months of his application languishing at the college, Lewis wrote to King of his dilemma, and King responded with a round-trip bus ticket to Montgomery so that they could meet to discuss the matter. During his spring break in 1958, Lewis boarded a bus bound for Montgomery. He was met there by a young lawyer named Fred Gray, who had represented Rosa Parks, and was taken to First Baptist Church, where he met with David Abernathy and King; this meeting would mark the beginning of Lewis’s involvement in the civil rights movement. After meeting with movement leaders in Montgomery, Lewis decided not to pursue admittance into Troy State because his parents were fearful that he would be killed. Also, Lewis did not want his family to suffer the hardships of losing their land or store credit with local merchants as retaliation for challenging Jim Crow laws. Lewis graduated from American Baptist and went on to earn a bachelor of arts in religion and philosophy from Fisk University.
Freedom Riders As a college student, Lewis organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and in 1961 participated in the Freedom Rides, which tested desegregation rulings in bus terminals in southern states. In 1963, Lewis served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), of which was he was among the founders. SNCC, the student arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organized student sit-ins, voter registration drives, and other activities protesting segregation and inequality. Although Lewis’s parents feared for his safety, Lewis never questioned the philosophy of nonviolence, even after a brutal beating at the Montgomery bus station during the Freedom Rides.
John Lewis Injured During March Lewis again had his commitment to nonviolence tested on March 7, 1965, when at age 25, he and other civil rights leaders readied themselves for the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. This action was organized to call attention to civil rights and economic abuses suffered by African Americans in Alabama, to voting-rights equality, and to the murder of African American activist Jimmie Lee Jackson. Lewis and 525 other civil rights activists marched toward Selma‘s Edmund Pettus Bridge and were met by Alabama state troopers. Lewis believed that they simply would be arrested, taken to jail, and later released. Maj. John Claude of the Alabama State Troopers and Jim Clark, the Dallas County sheriff, were positioned with their men to ensure that the marchers did not advance across the bridge. Claude warned, over a megaphone, that the marchers were engaged in an unlawful activity and gave them only minutes to disperse. The marchers asked for a moment to pray, but without a response, state troopers and sheriff’s deputies charged and began brutally beating the marchers with night sticks and bull whips and attacking them with tear gas. About 70 people were injured, with 17 requiring hospitalization. John Lewis suffered a fractured skull during the melee. News footage and still photographs of this brutality enraged the nation and brought the swift passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“John Lewis Day” at Troy University Lewis parted ways with SNCC in 1966 but continued to work in the field of civil rights. He served as the associate director of the Field Foundation and as a representative for the Southern Regional Council’s voter registration programs. Later, he became the director of the Voter Education Project, and, under his leadership, the organization added almost four million minorities to voter rolls. He was married in 1968 to Lillian Miles Lewis, with whom he had one son. In 1977, Lewis entered the political arena when a vacancy in Georgia’s Fifth District opened up after President Jimmy Carter appointed Congressman Andrew Young to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Lewis was defeated in that race by Wyche Fowler, an Atlanta councilman who would later become a senator. In 1981, Lewis successfully ran for a seat on the Atlanta City Council. He focused his efforts on the issues of ethical government and the preservation of neighborhoods. In 1986, Lewis aimed for higher ground—the U.S. House of Representatives. He defeated fellow civil rights leader Julian Bond and was elected to represent Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. This district includes the city of Atlanta and parts of Fulton County, Dekalb County, and Clayton County. Lewis was only the second African American to represent Georgia in Congress since Reconstruction. He held a leadership role as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and was the chair of its Subcommittee on Oversight. When Lewis was elected to Congress, the city of Troy and Troy University held “John Lewis Day” and a parade in his honor. Almost 30 years after his application to the school was ignored, Chancellor Ralph Adams awarded Lewis an honorary degree from the school.
Lewis was not known for sponsoring legislation but rather for voting with liberal Democrats in support of domestic spending and for opposing military spending. Lewis sponsored a number of resolutions, most of which honored fallen civil rights heroes, and his other legislative efforts were aimed at helping people who are chronically ill and poor. Lewis was a superdelegate for the Democratic Party in 2008 and initially endorsed New York senator Hillary Clinton for the party’s nomination. But in February in 2008, he had a change of heart and endorsed Illinois senator Barack Obama.
Lewis generated controversy during the contentious presidential election of 2008 when he accused Arizona senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, and his running mate, Alaska governor Sarah Palin of “sowing the seeds of hatred and division.” He compared the atmosphere at their campaign rallies to that surrounding Alabama governor George Wallace‘s political career during the era of segregation. In assessing these campaign rallies, Lewis gave a stern warning to McCain that he was arousing dangerous and inflammatory sentiments among his supporters.
John Lewis at Comic-Con On November 4, 2008, when Barack Obama was elected as the first African American president of the United States, Lewis was among the key speakers who addressed the gathered crowd at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Lewis jubilantly addressed the crowd with tears streaming down his cheeks.
In 2013, Lewis’s career took a new turn, when he coauthored the first of a three-part graphic novel, March, based on his experiences during the civil rights movement and produced by Top Shelf Productions The first part appeared in 2013, and two subsequent volumes were published in 2014 and 2015. In July 2013, Rep. Lewis became the first sitting congressman to appear among the authors and other creative artists at the annual Comic-Con convention in San Diego, California. He returned in 2015 when the final installment of his series was released.
John Lewis and Pres. Barack Obama Lewis received many awards from national and international institutions. Among them are the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the National Education Association Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award, and the only John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for Lifetime Achievement ever granted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. The Timberland Company has created the John Lewis Award, which honors the congressman’s commitment to humanitarian service by acknowledging members of society who perform outstanding humanitarian work, and a John Lewis Scholarship Fund. In March 2015, he returned to Selma to take part in a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the voting rights march. He gave one of the speeches that day and introduced Pres. Barack Obama. The following year, he led a sit-in on the House floor in favor of stricter guns laws after a mass shooting in Orlando, Florida. He boycotted the inauguration of Pres. Donald Trump in 2017, stating his belief that the election was tainted by Russian interference and strongly supported Trump’s impeachment in late 2019.
Lewis died from pancreatic cancer on July 17, 2020. Notably, Lewis died the same day as Rev. C.T. Vivian, another veteran of voting rights efforts in Selma. In summer 2020, during widespread protests against racial injustice and police brutality, Lewis voiced support for those protests just days prior to his death. Fellow lawmakers and others remembered Lewis as the “conscience of the Congress” for his long-time commitment to justice and nonviolence and his fight for civil and human rights. He was honored posthumously as an Alabama Humanities Alliance Fellow of 2022 in February of that year.
- Lewis, John, with Michael D’Orso. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
- Lewis, John. Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change. New York: Hyperion, 2012.
- Haskins, Jim, and Kathleen Benson. John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Lee & Low Books, 2006.