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U.S.LIFE > People > Biographies of Famous Americans > John Lewis

John Lewis

Chairman 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 and intimidation.

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.

John Lewis Biography Photo
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 beaten.

John Lewis Biography Photo
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" speech.

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 Alabama.

John Lewis Biography Photo
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.

John Lewis Biography Photo
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 Representatives.

John Lewis Biography Photo
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 Institute.

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 information was provided courtesy of the Achiever Gallery from the Academy of Achievement.


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