John Lewis Biography
Champion of Civil Rights
John Lewis Date of birth: February 21, 1940
John Lewis was born to a family of sharecroppers outside of Troy,
Alabama, at a time when African Americans in the South were subjected
to a humiliating segregation in education and all public facilities,
and were effectively prevented from voting by systematic discrimination
From an early age, John Lewis was committed
to the goal of education for himself, and justice for his people.
Inspired by the example of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
in the Montgomery bus boycott, he corresponded with Dr. King and
resolved to join the struggle for civil rights.
After attending segregated public schools in Pike
County, Alabama, he graduated from the American Baptist Theological
Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee and completed a Bachelor's in Religion
and Philosophy at Fisk University. As a student he made a systematic
study of the techniques and philosophy of nonviolence, and with his
fellow students prepared thoroughly for their first actions. They began
with sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Day after day, Lewis and his
fellow students sat silently at lunch counters where they were
harassed, spit upon, beaten and finally arrested and held in jail, but
they persisted in the sit-ins. In 1961, Lewis joined fellow students on
the Freedom Rides, challenging the segregation of interstate buses. In
the Montgomery bus terminal he was again attacked by a mob and brutally
Lewis was one of the founding members of the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and served as its president
from 1963 to 1966, when SNCC was at the forefront of the student
movement for Civil Rights. By 1963, he was recognized as one of the
"Big Six" leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, along with Dr. King,
Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins. He
was one of the planners and keynote speakers of the March on Washington
in August 1963, the occasion of Dr. King's celebrated "I Have a Dream"
In 1964, Lewis coordinated SNCC's efforts for
"Mississippi Freedom Summer," a campaign to register black voters
across the South. The following year, Lewis led one of the most
dramatic protests of the era. On March 7, 1965 -- a day that would
become known as "Bloody Sunday" -- Lewis and fellow activist Hosea
Williams led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in
Selma, Alabama. At the end of the bridge, they were met by Alabama
State Troopers, who ordered them to disperse. When the marchers stopped
to pray, the police discharged tear gas and mounted troopers charged
the demonstrators, beating them with night sticks. Lewis's skull was
fractured, but he escaped across the bridge, to a church in Selma.
Before he could be taken to the hospital, John Lewis appeared before
the television cameras calling on President Johnson to intervene in
Scenes of the violence, and of the injured John Lewis,
were broadcast around the world, and outraged public opinion demanded
that the President take action. Two days later, Dr. King led 1,000
members of the clergy on a second march from Selma to Montgomery, with
the eyes of the world watching. A week and a day after Bloody Sunday,
President Johnson appeared before a joint session of Congress to demand
passage of the Voting Rights Act, empowering the federal government to
enforce the voting rights of all Americans. The passage of the voting
rights act finally brought the federal government into the struggle,
squarely on the side of the disenfranchised voters of the South.
The violent deaths of his friends Martin
Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968 were a great blow
to John Lewis, but Lewis remained committed as ever to the philosophy
of nonviolence. As Director of the Voter Education Project (VEP), he
helped bring nearly four million new minority voters into the
democratic process. For the first time since Reconstruction, African
Americans were running for public office in the South, and winning.
Lewis settled in Atlanta, Georgia, and when the former
Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, became President, he tapped John
Lewis to head the federal volunteer agency, ACTION. In 1981, after
Jimmy Carter had left the White House, John Lewis was elected to the
Atlanta City Council, where he became an effective advocate of
neighborhood preservation and government reform. In 1986 he ran for
Congress, and John Lewis, whose own parents had been prevented from
voting, who had been denied access to the schools and libraries of his
home town, who had been threatened, jailed and beaten for trying to
register voters, was elected to the United States House of
Since then he has been re-elected repeatedly by
overwhelming margins, on one occasion running unopposed. Today, he
represents Georgia's Fifth Congressional District, encompassing the
entire city of Atlanta and parts of four surrounding counties.
Congressman Lewis sits on the House Budget Committee and House Ways and
Means Committee, where he serves on the Subcommittee on Health. He
serves as Senior Chief Deputy Democratic Whip, is a member of the
Democratic Steering Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus and the
Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists. Apart from
his service in Congress, he is Co-Chair of the Faith and Politics
Congressman Lewis has received numerous
honorary degrees and awards, including the Martin Luther King, Jr.
Non-Violent Peace Prize, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the Martin Luther
King, Jr. Memorial Award of the National Education Association, and the
John F. Kennedy "Profile in Courage" award for lifetime achievement.
His courage and integrity have won him the admiration of congressional
colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Senator John McCain has written
a moving tribute to John Lewis in his book, Why Courage Matters. Congressman Lewis gives his own account of his experiences in the Civil Rights era in Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, published in 1998.
This page last revised on Mar 26, 2006 21:47 PST