John Robert Lewis (born February 21, 1940) is the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, serving since 1987. He was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), playing a key role in the struggle to end segregation. He is a member of the Democratic Party and is one of the most liberal legislators.
Early life, education, and early career
Born in Troy, Alabama, the third son of Eddie and Willie Mae Lewis. His parents were sharecroppers. Lewis was educated at the Pike County Training High School, Brundidge, Alabama and also American Baptist Theological Seminary and at Fisk University, both in Nashville, Tennessee, where he became active in the local sit-in movement. 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. He participated in the Freedom Rides to desegregate the South, and was a national leader in the struggle for civil rights. In an interview John Lewis said “I saw racial discrimination as a young child. I saw those signs that said “White Men, Colored Men, White Women, Colored Women.”…”I remember as a young child with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins going down to the public library trying to get library cards, trying to check some books out, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for “coloreds.” John Lewis followed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Rosa Parks on the radio. He and his family supported the Montgomery bus boycott.
Civil rights activism
John Lewis was an influential SNCC leader and is recognized by most as one of the important leaders of the civil rights movement as a whole. He was born on February 21, 1940, in Troy, Alabama. His family were sharecroppers. He was a hard-working young man who overcame poverty and political disenfranchisement to educate himself.
He graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville and then received a bachelor’s degree in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University. As a student, Lewis was very dedicated to the civil rights movement. He organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville and took part in many other civil rights activities.
In 1961, Lewis joined SNCC in the Freedom Rides. Riders traveled the South challenging segregation at interstate bus terminals. Lewis and others received death threats and were severely beaten by angry mobs. In 1963, when Chuck McDew stepped down as SNCC chairman, Lewis was quickly elected to take over. Lewis’ experience at that point was already widely respected—he had been arrested 24 times as a result of his activism. He held the post of chairman until 1966.
In 1963, Lewis helped plan and took part in the March on Washington. At the age of 23, he was a keynote speaker at the historic event. In 1965, he led 525 marchers across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. State troopers attacked the marchers in a violent incident that later became known as “Bloody Sunday.” In 1981, Lewis was elected to his first official government office as an Atlanta City Council member. In 1986, he was elected to Congress, where he is currently serving his seventh term.
Hear John Lewis describe his experience on the Freedom Rides
As a student, Lewis was very dedicated to the civil rights movement. He was instrumental in organizing student sit-ins, bus boycotts and non-violent protests in the fight for voter and racial equality. In 1961 he joined SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and the Freedom Rides. He was 21 years old. John Lewis was one of the 13 original freedom riders. There were seven whites and six blacks.
He endured brutal beatings by angry mobs and suffered a fractured skull at the hands of Alabama State police as he led a march of 600 people in Selma in 1965. He was nearly beaten to death in Montgomery.
In 1963, when Chuck McDew stepped down as SNCC chairman, Lewis was quickly elected to take over. Lewis’ experience at that point was already widely respected—he had been arrested 24 times as a result of his activism. He held the post of chairman until 1966. 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. Lewis represented [SNCC], the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and was the youngest speaker.
In 1964, Lewis coordinated SNCC’s efforts for “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” a campaign to register black voters across the South. Lewis became nationally known during his prominent role in the Selma to Montgomery marches. 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. Lewis bears scars on his head that are still visible today.
Historian Howard Zinn wrote: “At the great Washington March of 1963, the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), John Lewis, speaking to the same enormous crowd that heard Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, was prepared to ask the right question: ‘Which side is the federal government on?’ That sentence was eliminated from his speech by organizers of the March to avoid offending the Kennedy Administration. But Lewis and his fellow SNCC workers had experienced, again and again, the strange passivity of the national government in the face of Southern violence.”
Lewis (far right) with Bayard Rustin, Andrew Young, William Fitts Ryan, and James L. Farmer, Jr.
“John Lewis and SNCC had reason to be angry. At 21 years old, John Lewis was the first of the Freedom Riders to be assaulted while in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He tried to enter a whites-only waiting room and two white men attacked him, injuring his face and kicking him in the ribs. Nevertheless, only two weeks later Lewis joined a Freedom Ride that was bound for Jackson. “We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal. We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back,” Lewis said recently in regard to his perseverance following the act of violence.
In an interview with CNN during the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Lewis recounted the sheer amount of violence he and the 12 other original Freedom Riders endured. In Anniston, Alabama the bus was mercilessly fire-bombed after Ku Klux Klan members deflated its tires, forcing it to come to a stop. In Birmingham, the Riders were mercilessly beaten, and in Montgomery an angry mob met the bus, where Lewis was hit in the head with a wooden crate. “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious,” said Lewis, remembering the incident. The original intent of the Freedom Rides was to test the new law that banned segregation in public transportation. It also exposed the passivity of the government regarding violence against citizens of the country who were simply acting in accordance to the law. The federal government had trusted the notoriously racist Alabama police to protect the Riders, but did nothing itself, except to have FBI agents take notes. The Kennedy Administration then called for a ‘cooling-off period,’ a moratorium on Freedom Rides. Lewis had been imprisoned for forty days in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County, Mississippi after participating in a Freedom Riders activity in that state.
Lewis at meeting of American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1964
In February 2009, forty-eight years after he had been bloodied by the Ku Klux Klan during civil rights marches, Lewis received an apology on national television from a white southerner, former Klansman Elwin Wilson.
After leaving SNCC in 1966, Lewis worked with community organizations and was named community affairs director for the National Consumer Co-op Bank in Atlanta.