Being often referred to as “One of the most courageous persons the civil rights movement ever produced,” John Robert Lewis is known for his dedication to protecting human rights. A leader and pioneer in non-violent demonstrations during the civil rights movement, Lewis is remembered for his ethics and morality. From his years as a civil rights demonstrator to his days in the halls of Congress, his legacy of equal treatment and personal dignity for all still resonates in the lives of countless Americans and American policy.
Lewis, the son of sharecroppers was born on Feb. 21, 1940, in Troy, Alabama. Born in a time when African Americans in the South were subjected to segregation, systematic discrimination and intimidation. Lewis grew up on his family’s small chicken farm on the edge of Pike County, Alabama. Due to segregation by the time he turned six, he could only recount have seen two white people in his entire life. As he grew, he began to venture farther than the safety of his family’s farm, taking trips into his hometown where he would experience racism and segregation. His inequities however laid a light burden on him, as Lewis was already committed to the goal of education for himself, and the justice for his people.
Lewis had family in the North, relatives would tell him of their life on the other half of the country. From those interactions, Lewis learned that in the North their schools, buses, and businesses were all integrated. He began to become aware of the contrast between the South’s segregation and the the North’s integration. Inspired by Black figures like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the idea of integration, Lewis who had been educated in segregated schools all his life had the desire of attending and desegregating Troy State College (now Troy University). After being denied from the institution for the color of his skin, the now young man wrote to MLK about being denied and was later invited to meet with him. King referred to Lewis as “the boy from Troy,” and discussed suing the university for discrimination, an act that would have been the first of its kind. However, MLK warned Lewis that doing so could endanger his family and after consideration, Lewis decided instead to continue his education at a small, historically black college.
While in college, Lewis partook in nonviolent protest and sit-ins at lunch counters and other segregated public places. Lewis and his fellow students would sit at lunch counters where they were harassed, spat at, beaten, and arrested, but they persisted and continued to protest peacefully.
In 1961, Lewis became one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, the group was made up of seven African Americans and six white Americans. The group’s plan was to ride buses from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans to challenge the policies that Southern states along the route had imposed. They wanted to challenge segregated seating on the buses as violating federal policy for interstate transportation. The Freedom Rides revealed the passivity of local, state and federal governments in the face of violence against law-abiding minority citizens. While in the South, Lewis and other Freedom Riders were beaten by angry mobs and arrested. Lewis had been the first of the Freedom Riders to be attacked while peacefully protesting. He accepted being beaten and arrested as the norm in his pursuit for equality, and in that pursuit he made a name of himself becoming a rising leader through his peaceful demonstrations.
Lewis rose in leadership so much so that in 1963 he was elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In this position he became responsible for student sit-ins and other non-violent acts of protests while in the fight for civil rights. Lewis played such a pivotal role in the position by that point, although he was in his early 20s, he was considered one of the civil rights movement’s “Big Six” leaders. The “Big Six” were the faces of prominent leaders and pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement. Among Lewis were other names like Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, MLK, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins.
At 23, Lewis became one of the planners and a keynote speakers at the historic March on Washington, a key demonstration in the civil rights movement when thousands descended into Washington D.C. to demand equal protection under the constitution. Lewis also stood right behind MLK as he gave one of America’s most well-known speeches in American history, ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
The following year in 1965, Lewis organized the Selma voting rights campaign which was later to be known as the Selma to Montgomery marches, whose efforts were to register black voters in the South. On the faithful day of March 7, 1965, Louis lead over 600 peaceful protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Once on the other side of the bridge, Louis and protesters were met by Alabama state troopers who had ordered them to disperse. The group stopped to pray which led police to throw tear gas into the crowd and charge at demonstrators. The crowd was beaten by officers, mauled by dogs, and sprayed by hoses. This day was known as Bloody Sunday, it serves as a stain on the dark side of American history while also serving as a turning point in the civil rights movement. Lewis suffered from skull fractures and other injuries during the attack, scars from that day would stay with him for the rest of his life. The march and tragedy was later followed with the passing and signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, an act that outlawed discriminatory voting laws.
Lewis later left the SNCC in 1966, but remained as an active advocate in the civil rights movement through his work. Serving as Associate Director of the Field Foundation and his participation in the Southern Regional Council’s voter registration programs, Lewis then went on to become the Director of the Voter Education Project (VEP). Under his leadership, the VEP transformed the nation’s political climate by adding nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls. For the first time since Reconstruction, African Americans were running for public office in the South, and winning. Lewis then settled in Atlanta, Georgia, where former governor of Georgia turned president, Jimmy Carter, tapped Lewis to head the federal volunteer agency, ACTION.
Lewis’s first electoral success came in 1981 when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. While serving on the Atlanta City Council, Lewis was an advocate for ethics in government and neighborhood preservation. He resigned from the Council in 1986 for a run for Congress. Lewis was elected to the United States House of Representatives. Lewis would be reelected 18 times, dropping below 70 percent of the vote in the general election only once in 1994. He would also run unopposed six times.
For more than 30 years, Lewis represented Georgia’s 5th district in congress and took on yet again more leadership roles. Congressman Lewis sat on the House Budget Committee and House Ways and Means Committee, where he served on the Subcommittee on Health. He served as Senior Chief Deputy Democratic Whip, as a member of the Democratic Steering Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists.
Lewis was a voice in congress standing up for human rights in America and abroad. In 2009, Lewis was arrested, with three other U.S. Representatives, outside the Embassy of Sudan, where they were protesting the obstruction of aid to refugees in Darfur. The congressman was also a loud leader in marriage equality in the United States as well as being one of the houses first voices for the cause. He also championed healthcare legislation from the patient protection act and Affordable Care Act, they became some of the proudest achievements of his legislative career. Other notable moments in his career was the passing of the national African-American Museum in Washington D.C. and his call for impeachment of George W. Bush. He also brought his days of political activism in the House of Representatives by forming sit ins for gun reform legislation in early 2000s.
Lewis received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolent 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. The congressman also held more than 50 honorary college degrees. In a ceremony at the White House, President Barack Obama awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In the final days of 2019, Lewis announced that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He resolved to return to Washington for the 2020 session of Congress to continue working while he pursued treatment. On July 17, 2020, Lewis died at the age of 80 after an eight-month battle with the disease in Atlanta. The current president at the time, Donald Trump ordered all flags to be flown at half staff. Condolences came from across the nation and the international community as well, all memorializing Lewis and his life in the pursuit of equality.
Since his death, his name has echoed on in the halls of Congress by the introduction of voting rights legislation named after him, called the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim or diminish your light. Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won– John Lewis