BIOGRAPHY of CONGRESSMAN JOHN LEWIS
For more than 40 years, Congressman John Lewis has been the vanguard of progressive social and political causes, namely the Civil Rights Movement, in the United States. He has dedicated his life to building what he calls “The Beloved Community,” a community in which people of different races, religions and ethnicities work together to ensure that the basic human rights of all individuals are protected.
John Robert Lewis was born to sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama on February 21, 1940. He was raised on his family’s 110-acre farm where he and his nine siblings picked their share of cotton, gathered peanuts and pulled corn, often in place of attending the segregated schools of Pike County, Alabama.
As a student at Fisk University, Lewis began his public quest to end discrimination by organizing sit-ins and coordinating other efforts of nonviolent protest. In 1961, Lewis volunteered to participate in a campaign to test desegregation in interstate transportation facilities. The Freedom Rides, as they were called, began on Greyhound buses in Washington, D.C.—transporting black and white passengers throughout the South—through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, ending in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Along the way, many of the Freedom Riders were jailed for attempting to eat at lunch counters with whites and use waiting rooms or water fountains marked “WHITE” at bus terminals. There were staged sit-ins, stand-ins and jail-ins that drew the press and unwanted attention to the cities they visited. One of the most distressing reports, heard by Lewis and others over the radio, was of a bombing in Anniston, Alabama. A bus carrying nine Freedom Riders was set ablaze by segregationists as a mob of more than 200 people cursed at the passengers, while others brandished bricks and clubs to intimidate them.
In 1963, as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis was recognized as one of the “Big Six”, (along with Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Phillip Randolph, Whitney Young, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins), who met with President John F. Kennedy to discuss the planning of the upcoming “March on Washington.” In August of 1963, in front of several hundred thousand people on the National Mall, Lewis, 23, delivered a poignant, controversial speech which, ready or not, would catapult him to the fore of the national spotlight.
In the summer of 1964, under the auspices of SNCC, Lewis helped coordinate efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs in preparation for the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” as it was called, was established to create an insurgent party that would challenge the state’s traditional Democratic Party of segregationist, white delegates for Mississippi’s seats at the upcoming national convention. The mission was to gain national attention by demonstrating political power in numbers. It worked.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams led one of the most prominent and dramatic nonviolent protests of the Movement, leading more than 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. In the confrontation that followed known as “Bloody Sunday,” Alabama state troopers kicked and clubbed marchers, severely injuring many who moments earlier stood arm in arm in peaceful protest. During the attack, Lewis was struck in the head and knocked unconscious.
The publicity surrounding “Bloody Sunday” and a subsequent march between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama prompted President Lyndon Johnson to push for the Voting Rights Act, which the Congress passed on August 6, 1965.
Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, Lewis remained a disciple of
the nonviolent philosophy. After leaving SNCC in 1966, he remained active in the Civil Rights
Movement as the associate director of the Field Foundation and a volunteer 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 four million minorities to the voter rolls.
In 1977, Lewis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency. In 1980, he left ACTION and became Community Affairs Director of the National Consumer Co-op Bank in Atlanta.
Lewis’s first political victory came in 1981 when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. As a council member, Lewis focused on ethics in government and neighborhood preservation. After five years on the Council, Lewis left to pursue a U.S. Congressional seat. In November of 1986, Lewis was elected to represent Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, which includes all of Atlanta and parts of Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties. In 1996, Lewis ran unopposed in his bid for a sixth term and is currently serving his eighth term.
In the 107th Congress, Lewis is a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, where he serves on the Subcommittees on Health and Oversight. Lewis is also Chief Deputy Democratic Whip, a position he has held since 1991. He serves on the Democratic Steering Committee, and is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists. Lewis is also co-chair of the Faith and Politics Institute.
In 1990, the National Journal named Lewis one of 11 “rising stars in Congress,” saying “Few House members…have had such momentous experiences before coming to Washington that the other members of Congress want to hear about. John R. Lewis (D-GA) has that cachet and he has made it a plus in his House service.” In 1998, Congressional Quarterly named John Lewis a Liberal Stalwart in its special edition on “50 Ways to Do the Job of Congress.”
Lewis earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University in 1963 and is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary of Nashville, Tennessee. He holds honorary degrees from Fisk, Morehouse College, Columbia University, Clark Atlanta University, Brandeis University, Princeton University and Williams College. Lewis has been honored with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize, in addition to the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Moral Courage Award.
Lewis is married to Lillian, who is the Director of External Affairs for the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at Clark Atlanta University. They live in Atlanta with their son, John-Miles.