Often called "one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced," John Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he calls "The Beloved Community" in America. His dedication to the highest ethical standards and moral principles has won him the admiration of many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress.
John Robert Lewis was born the son of sharecroppers on February 21, 1940, outside of Troy, Alabama. One of ten children, he grew up on his family's farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. As a young boy, he was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which he heard on radio broadcasts. In those pivotal moments, he made a decision to become a part of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1957, John Lewis went to American Baptist Theology Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, a school that allowed students to work in exchange for tuition. The following year Lewis met James Lawson and began studying the principles of nonviolence with him. On February 1, 1960, four African American students sat at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Lewis and his peers had been preparing for a moment like this, and the Nashville sit-ins began February 13th. Within a couple of weeks, protestors were being attacked and arrested, but the movement was eventually successful, and Nashville’s lunch counters were integrated. Following the spread of the sit-in movement throughout the South, students formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in April, and Lewis was a major organizer. In the wake of the sit-ins, northern universities began inviting Lewis and other leaders to speak about the movement.
In 1961, John Lewis took part in the Freedom Rides, designed to test a Supreme Court ruling banning segregation on interstate buses. The interracial group of riders planned to board buses in Washington, D.C. and ride them to New Orleans. Lewis had to leave the original group early because of an obligation, but he returned to Nashville to organize additional riders to keep the rides going in light of the violence the original riders endured. Lewis left with a group from Nashville and faced a violent mob at Birmingham’s terminal. When Lewis disembarked in Montgomery, he faced a worse situation, and mobs beat Lewis and other riders severely. Police arrested riders in Jackson, Mississippi, and Lewis was imprisoned for forty days in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County, Mississippi.
At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963, Lewis, a representative of the SNCC, was the youngest speaker, and during the famous Selma march to Washington Lewis was beaten mercilessly in public, leaving head wounds that are still visible today. From 1963 through 1966 John Lewis was named the chairman for the SNCC.
Despite the violent racism that John Lewis encountered, he continued working on a variety of civil rights projects. Major ones included the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which would run a slate of African American candidates in that state, and Freedom Summer in 1964, which would bring hundreds of white volunteers from the North into Mississippi, well known as the most dangerous southern state for civil rights workers. In fact, on June 21, the day the first wave of volunteers began their journey South, three civil rights workers from CORE were murdered, one African American and two whites. The results of Lewis’s and his colleagues’ efforts in Mississippi were mixed, many African Americans registered to vote, but the Democratic Party refused to seat the MFDP’s delegation at its August convention.
Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. After leaving SNCC in 1966, he continued his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement as Associate Director of the Field Foundation and his participation in the Southern Regional Council's voter registration programs. Lewis 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.
In 1981, John Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council. While serving on the Council, he was an advocate for ethics in government and neighborhood preservation. He was elected to Congress in November 1986 and has served as U.S. Representative of Georgia's Fifth Congressional District since then. That District includes the entire city of Atlanta, Georgia and parts of Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties.
John Lewis holds a B.A. in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University, and he is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville, Tennessee. He has been awarded over 50 honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities throughout the United States.