John Robert Lewis (1940-2020), a veteran of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives by the citizens of Atlanta, Georgia, in 1986. After his election, Lewis won reelection several times, representing Georgia's Fifth Congressional District. In 2011 Lewis was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama. He was also the first United States congressman to write a graphic novel.
John R. Lewis--a native of Troy, Alabama--first achieved national attention while he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the 1960s. Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, to Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis. He was one of ten children. The family led a relatively simple rural existence, with Eddie working as a tenant farmer and later a land holder while Willie Mae earned money by taking in laundry. The Lewis children were raised in a religious atmosphere characterized by loving concern for each child. No amount of love, however, could shield young John from the adverse effects of racial segregation then prevalent in Alabama. He was bussed past a well-equipped high school for white children to a one-room schoolhouse which only inadequately served the needs of African American students. Even as a schoolboy, Lewis observed that roads and modern conveniences which aided the development of the white community were denied to poverty-stricken African American neighborhoods in the Troy area.
While he was a teenager Lewis felt the call to the gospel ministry and began to preach periodically in local churches. He listened regularly to a radio gospel program presented by a young Boston-trained theologian, Martin Luther King, Jr., and was inspired because King, a southern African American man, was intelligent, articulate, and interesting. King also had thoughtful ideas about addressing the problems of racial injustice through passive resistance. When Lewis was 15 he learned of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott led by King, Ralph D. Abernathy, and other members of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The MIA led the vast majority of the African Americans in the city in their decision to refuse to ride the segregated city busses unless they were treated more fairly by white drivers and passengers. It filled Lewis with pride to see the African American community of Montgomery acting in concert and with determination to continue the boycott until the bus company agreed to their demands. The boycott drew national and international attention, and many people, both African American and white, rejoiced when, after a year-long struggle, the city bus company agreed to give African American passengers the same rights as whites and pledged to hire some African American bus drivers.
Lewis had much more than a passing interest in the boycott: it inspired him to want an active role in the civil rights struggle. He was not yet sure exactly what he could do, but he was a willing volunteer long before he could become actively involved. As King and Abernathy found in their religion an avenue for social action, so Lewis began to pursue more actively his own theological training with a view toward doing the same. He traveled to Tennessee, where he attended the American Baptist Seminary and later enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville. Both of these institutions of higher learning were open primarily to African American students.
Lewis was kept from actively participating in civil rights agitation for a while by his parents who were frightened for his life. But in 1960, after four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro sat down in the "white-only" section of the local Woolworth's lunch counter and refused to move, hundreds of African American and white students all over the South determined to follow their example. Such "sit-ins" provoked a spontaneous but quiet revolution which allowed students to register their protests without harming anyone or destroying any property. The students welcomed being jailed as a result of their sit-ins and, because of the publicity it gave to their cause, they often refused to post bail.
Though Lewis's parents continued to urge him not to get involved, he felt that at 20 he knew his own mind. He joined the lunch counter sit-in demonstrations that were taking place in Nashville. Soon he had been jailed four times, but this was just the beginning of the violence that would be inflicted on this apostle of nonviolence. Before the federal Civil Rights Act was passed four years later in 1964, Lewis had been jailed and beaten many times and had suffered a fractured skull at the hands of an angry white mob in Selma, Alabama, during the 1963 Selma to Montgomery protest march.
Because of the spontaneity of the sit-ins, the students had no organizational body or any general affiliation with existing civil rights groups. Ella Baker, the executive secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC, King's regional organization), called a meeting in 1960 to help the students get organized. The students met at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in April of 1960. There, with Lewis as a co-founder along with about 200 other students, SNCC was formed. The students refused to affiliate with any of the existing major civil rights groups such as the SCLC, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), or the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). They formed their own organization and elected Marion Barry, a graduate student at Fisk University, as their first chairman.
After a 1961 Supreme Court decision declaring illegal all segregation in interstate bus depots and on busses, CORE leaders decided to stage a "freedom ride" from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. Their purpose was to ignore all traditional forms of segregation on the busses and in the terminals. Led by CORE director James Farmer, 13 freedom riders, seven African Americans and six whites, left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. Lewis was among them. The riders, who had pledged themselves to nonviolence, were brutally beaten during the ride. Lewis was the first to be attacked. Finally, when the Greyhound bus that some of the demonstrators were riding in was burned outside of Anniston, Alabama, the CORE volunteers were ready to discontinue their protest. SNCC members including Lewis refused to be dissuaded from their cause and continued the freedom rides. Lewis also led marches against segregated movie theaters in Nashville, again prompting numerous arrests as well as physical and verbal abuse by local whites. Through it all Lewis maintained a path of nonviolence toward achieving civil rights.
Lewis was unanimously elected chairman of SNCC in 1963 and served until 1966 when Stokely Carmichael, the proponent of the more aggressive "Black power" strategy, won his seat. During the time that he was chairman, Lewis had the opportunity to be one of the speakers during the August 28, 1963, March on Washington, when nearly 250,000 African Americans and whites converged on the U.S. capital to stage a peaceful march for jobs and freedom. After he was ousted as SNCC chairman, Lewis went on to work for the Field Foundation, where, in a number of capacities, he continued his efforts. One of the most significant roles he played at the foundation was as director of its Voter Education Project (VEP). From 1970 through 1977, Lewis led grass roots efforts to organize southern African American voters, politically educating the youth and supporting voter assistance programs. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed him to be director of US operations for ACTION, a federal agency overseeing economic recovery programs on the community level.
Determined to have a greater voice in community issues, Lewis became more involved in mainstream politics. In 1982 he was elected to the Atlanta City Council where he was known for his close attention to the needs of the poor and the elderly. Twenty years after he stepped down as the leader of SNCC, Lewis, a member of the Atlanta city council, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives after a hard fought battle with his former SNCC co-worker, Georgia state senator Julian Bond. Lewis' reputation as a diligent listener to the needs of the poor, elderly African Americans and labor carried him onto victory.
As a Congressman, Lewis carried on the fight for civil rights. Although critics accused him of not having effective strategies for adapting his positions to the changing needs of African Americans, he nonetheless remained a voice calling for a "sense of shared purpose, of basic morality that speaks to blacks and whites alike". In 1991 Lewis became one of the three chief deputy whips for the Democratic Party, one of the most influential positions in the House. His criticism of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich brought him to the forefront of controversy in 1996, although he was considered a moderate by many African Americans.
Lewis sat on the influential Steering and Policy Committee in the 102nd and 103rd Congresses. In the 104th Congress he was a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Urban Caucus. Reflective of his popularity, Lewis was unopposed in his bid for a sixth congressional term in office in 1996. In 1998 Lewis published his autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.
In the 107th Congress, which ended in 2002, Lewis was a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, serving on the Subcommittee on Health and the Subcommittee on Oversight. He continued to serve as a Chief Deputy Democratic Whip. He served on the Democratic Steering Committee and was a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists. He was also co-chair of the Faith and Politics Institute. Lewis was elected to a ninth term in Congress in November of 2002. He has been reelected several times since then.
Lewis has been awarded honorary degrees by Clark Atlanta University, Brandeis University, Columbia University, Fisk University, Morehouse College, Princeton University and Williams College. He has been the recipient of many awards, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize.
In May of 2001, on the occasion of his being awarded the Profile in Courage Lifetime Achievement Award from the John F. Kennedy Library, Lewis attempted to sum up his forty years as a civil rights activist. "Forty years ago," he said, "I did what I thought was right when I went on the Freedom Rides in 1961. We wanted to test a Supreme Court ruling that banned segregation in an interstate travel facility. When the bus arrived in Rock Hill, South Carolina, I deboarded the bus and approached the white waiting room. We were being watched and someone pointed to the "colored sign." I said: "I have a right to be here on the grounds of the Supreme Court decision in the Boynton case." Seconds later, I was attacked and the blood of another battle in the struggle for civil rights was drawn. I will never, ever forget that moment. I was 21. I was a sharecropper's son from a farm near Troy, Alabama. Yet somehow I learned that where there is injustice, you cannot ignore the call of conscience."
In 2009 Lewis watched as Barack Obama took the oath of office, becoming the first African American president of the United States. Lewis was the only living speaker from the March on Washington present at the inauguration. After the ceremony, Lewis asked Obama to sign a commemorative photograph for him. The new president signed the photo with the message, "Because of you, John. Barack Obama."
Two years later in 2011, Obama presented Lewis with the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be awarded to a citizen. Of the honor, Lewis told CBS News, "To receive it from President Barack Obama during African American history month, by the first African American president is so moving. It is almost unreal, is almost unbelievable."
In 2013, Lewis became the first American congressman to write a graphic novel. Lewis remembered being inspired by a comic book about Rosa Parks and nonviolent resistance when he was eighteen years old. The congressman decided to write his autobiography in a similar format. He hoped this format would inspire younger audience to political activism, just as he had been inspired. His graphic autobiography came out in three parts: March: Book One (2013), March: Book Two (2015), and March: Book Three (2016). The series was met with acclaim and best-selling status. The third book in the series went on to win the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2016, the first time ever a comic book (or graphic work of nonfiction) won.
On June 22, 2016, Lewis led a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives. Recalling the nonviolent activism of his youth, Lewis and his fellow Democrats sat on the House floor to protest the inaction of House Republicans in passing gun control legislation. The sit-in took place ten days after a lone gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida--the deadliest act of gun violence by a lone shooter in American history.
Lewis became an outspoken critic of Donald Trump upon Trump's election to the presidency in November 2016. In January 2017, Lewis claimed that Trump had not won the election legally and therefore was not the legitimate president. Lewis declined to attend the inauguration. Trump replied that Lewis should dedicate himself to helping his own congressional district rather than criticizing the election. The exchange between Lewis and Trump stirred emotions on both sides.
In December of 2019, Lewis revealed he was being treated for advanced-stage pancreatic cancer; he passed away on July 17, 2020, at the age of 80. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced his death in a statement: "Today, America mourns the loss of one of the greatest heroes of American history: Congressman John Lewis, the Conscience of the Congress."
Awarded more than 50 honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities; has received many prestigious awards, including the Lincoln Medal from the Ford's Theater; the Golden Plate Award from the Academy of Excellence; the Preservation Hero Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation; the Capital Award of the National Council of La Raza; the Martin Luther King Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize; the President's Medal from Georgetown University; the Springarn Medal from the NAACP; the National Education Association Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award; the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement; the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum, 2004; the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2011; National Book Award for Young People's Literature for March: Book Three, 2016.
- Besides Lewis' autobiography, there are several histories of SNCC which provide information about his life-- Howard Zinn, SNCC, The New Abolitionists (originally published 1964, revised 1985); Cleveland Sellers, The River of No Return (1973); James Foreman, The Making of African American Revolutionaries (1972, 1985); and Clayborne Carson, In Struggle (1981). Other sources include John Lewis Acceptance Speech, John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, May 21, 2001, available online at http://www.cs.umb.edu/jfklibrary/pica_2001_lewis_remarks.html (November 2002); and John Lewis Biography, U.S. House of Representatives, available online at http://www.house.gov/johnlewis/biography.htm (November 2002). In addition an in depth article in The New RepublicJuly 1, 1996 offers excellent biographical and political information.
- "Biography of John Lewis," U.S. Congressman John Lewis, http://johnlewis.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=17&Itemid=31 (August 30, 2011).
- "Civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis dead at 80," CNN.com, https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/17/politics/john-lewis-dead-at-80/index.html (July 18, 2020).
- "Graphic Novel Depicts John Lewis' 'March' Toward Justice," Code Switch, NPR, http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/08/31/216884526/graphic-novel-depicts-john-lewis-march-toward-justice (April 15, 2015).
- "Election 2010--Georgia," the New York Times, http://elections.nytimes.com/2010/results/georgia (August 30, 2011).
- "In Feud with John Lewis, Donald Trump Attacked 'One of the Most Respected People in America,'" Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/01/15/in-feud-with-john-lewis-donald-trump-attacked-one-of-the-most-respected-people-in-america/?utm_term=.6957224bd2e2&wpisrc=nl_most-draw14&wpmm=1 (February 24, 2017).
- "John Lewis, Bono are Freedom Award Winners," MSNBC, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5446830/ns/us_news-life/t/john-lewis-bono-are-freedom-award-winners/ (August 30, 2011).
- "John Lewis leads sit-in on House floor over guns," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/22/politics/john-lewis-sit-in-gun-violence/index.html (June 22, 2016).
- "John Lewis’ new nonfiction comic book wins a National Book Award," The Undefeated, https://theundefeated.com/features/john-lewis-new-nonfiction-comic-book-wins-a-national-book-award/ (July 20, 2020).
- "Obituary: John Lewis, US civil rights champion," BBC.com, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45875045 (July 18, 2020).
- "The President's Hero," New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2009/02/02/090202taco_talk_remnick (August 30, 2011).
- "Rep. John Lewis's National Book Award Win is a Milestone Moment for Graphic Novels," Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2016/11/17/rep-john-lewiss-national-book-award-win-is-a-milestone-moment-for-graphic-novels/?utm_term=.6cfd87529631 (February 24, 2017).
- "Rep. Lewis Reflects on Medal of Freedom Honor," CBS News, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20033110-503544.html (August 30, 2011).