John Lewis (b. 1940)

A devout advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence and the belief that all men and women are created equal, John Lewis has been a preeminent leader of the modern American civil rights movement. He has represented the Fifth Congressional District of Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987.

Early Life

Born to a sharecropper family in Pike County, Alabama, on February 21, 1940, John R. Lewis was educated at the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University, both in Nashville, Tennessee. While a college student in the early 1960s, he was swept into the sit-in movement. By sitting at lunch counters, public libraries, and other places designated for whites only in Nashville and dozens of other cities throughout the South, young people like Lewis protested what were known as Jim Crow laws, which segregated African Americans and whites. Trained in methods of nonviolent resistance, the young protesters refused to submit to what they regarded as immoral and un-American laws. They were arrested and, in many instances, beaten savagely by white southerners who resisted integration.

Civil Rights Activism

Lewis put his life on the line at several of the best-known battlegrounds in the modern African American struggle for equal rights. He was arrested numerous times for acting on his beliefs. Lewis was one of a small group of men and women who protested the segregation of interstate bus terminals in 1961 by traveling in integrated groups through the South. These Freedom Rides attracted national attention. When Lewis and others were attacked by white segregationists at a bus station in Montgomery, Alabama, they made national headlines and publicized the plight of blacks under a racially segregated social order.
In 1963 Lewis was elected chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an Atlanta-based civil rights organization that emerged from the college students' sit-in movement and was devoted to direct action; he remained in the post until 1966. Along with Martin Luther King Jr. and several others, he was a speaker at the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He helped coordinate SNCC's 1964 "Freedom Summer" project in Mississippi.
In 1965 Alabama state troopers beat Lewis and some 600 civil rights activists as he led them on a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, the state's capital. News cameras captured the beatings and broadcast them to a national audience. The outrage that followed what came to be known as "Bloody Sunday" helped create a consensus that resulted in the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act later that year.
Lewis moved to Atlanta as chair of SNCC in 1963. Disagreements about Black Power ideology and the role of whites in the organization drove Lewis from SNCC in 1966, but Atlanta remained his home. A series of jobs—including the executive directorship of the Southern Regional Council's Voter Education Project and the associate directorship of ACTION, the federal agency for volunteer service—took him to other places, but he kept returning, and he began to focus his energies on electoral politics.

The Political Arena

Lewis won elected office for the first time in 1981, when he secured an at-large seat on the Atlanta City Council. He resigned that seat in 1986 to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. Lewis faced Julian Bond, another SNCC veteran and a close friend, in the Democratic primary. Lewis defeated Bond in what became a surprisingly bitter primary runoff and then won the general election. He has gone on to win reelection eight times and has served in several leadership positions in the House Democratic caucus.
Lewis splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta with his wife, Lillian Miles, and son, John Miles. He has received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Spingarn Medal, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1998 he published a memoir, Walking with the Wind, which won the Lillian Smith Book Award (named for Georgia writer Lillian Smith and administered by the Southern Regional Council) and an award from the Georgia Writers Association. In 2013 he published March (Book One), the first of a trilogy of graphic novels chronicling the history of the civil rights movement.
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Further Reading
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).

Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).

David Halberstam, The Children (New York: Random House, 1998).

John Lewis with Michael D'Orso, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).
Cite This Article
Moye, J. T.. "John Lewis (b. 1940)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 06 November 2013. Web. 25 October 2014.
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Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries