A devout advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence and the belief that all men and women are created equal, John Lewis was a preeminent leader of the modern American civil rights movement. He then represented the Fifth Congressional District of Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives for more than thirty years.
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 Black Americans 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 came to play an outsized role in the city’s public life. It was during this period that Lewis met his future wife, Lillian Miles, who was working as a librarian at Atlanta University. The two married in 1968 and later had a son, John-Miles Lewis. Though she continued her own work as an academic and educator, Lillian Miles Lewis was a steadfast supporter of her husband’s political career, acting as both confidante and consultant until her death in 2013.
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 remained popular with voters in the years thereafter, winning reelection for sixteen consecutive terms, while serving in several leadership positions in the House Democratic caucus.
Lewis received numerous honorary degrees and awards for public service, 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. The second book, March (Book Two), appeared in 2015, and the third installment, March (Book Three), received a National Book Award upon its publication in 2016.
Lewis died of pancreatic cancer on July 17, 2020.