Congressman John Lewis: Civil Rights Leader and Trailblazer

Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department, Central Library,
Pictured: Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Bich Ngoc Cao,City Librarian John Szabo, Meg DeLoatch
Pictured: Marqueece Harris-Dawson, 8th District Council member, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Bich Ngoc Cao, President, Board of Library Commissioners, City Librarian John Szabo, Meg DeLoatch, Creator and Executive Producer of Netflix series Family Reunion where the John Lewis portrait appeared. The portrait now hangs in Central Library.

John Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama, the third oldest son of ten children. His father was a tenant farmer, while his mother earned extra money doing housework for other families. Lewis grew up in a loving family, but even at a young age, Lewis recognized that his father could never get ahead in life picking cotton and giving half the proceeds to the landowner. Lewis enjoyed going to school, so much so that instead of working on his parents’ farm, he hid while he waited to catch the school bus. During the bus rides to and from the one-room school for Black children, Lewis noticed the inequalities that existed between his school and the school for white children.

In 1954 Lewis read the newspaper with excitement, learning of the United States Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ended racial segregation in public schools. This turned to frustration when it became clear that the Alabama state government had no intention of implementing it. In 1955, Lewis first heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio and was instantly attracted to his social gospel of not only living a Christian life to eventually reach the Promised Land in the hereafter but to heed real-life issues such as the racial injustices occurring in their own communities. At the same time, he followed the stories from Montgomery Alabama about Rosa Parks and the ensuing bus boycotts, taking pride in the peaceful protests and the eventual desegregation of public buses.

John Lewis attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville Tennessee, where he eagerly learned the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Kant, St. Augustine, and Hegel. While at school, Lewis attempted to start an on-campus chapter of the NAACP but was rebuffed by the school administration. Lewis also sent an application to transfer to the all-white Troy State University, wanting to become the first black student to attend classes there. When his application was ignored, Lewis wrote a letter to Dr. King about his desire to integrate Troy University. Eventually, Lewis met with Dr. King in person. During the meeting, Dr. King and his advisers asked how committed Lewis was to his cause, and warned of the real dangers that Lewis and his family would face. Although Lewis was eager to get involved, his parents were understandably nervous about losing their farm, their jobs, or worse, so he heeded their wishes and returned to school in Nashville.

Although this protest did not materialize, Lewis quickly became involved in the civil rights movement in other ways. He helped organize peaceful sit-ins at lunch counters in the Nashville area, then became an original Freedom Rider traveling by bus through the South to bring attention to the Supreme Court decision that segregated facilities for interstate passengers were illegal. During these nonviolent protests, Lewis was brutally beaten and arrested multiple times. He was not angry at the individuals who attacked him but believed his struggle was against the culture that helped produce people who would commit such violence.

Lewis helped to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), eventually being elected chairman from 1961 to 1966. Through his leadership with this influential organization, Lewis, along with Dr. King, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, and Whitney Young, became known as the “Big Six”, or the six men who helped guide the civil rights movements in the 1960s. John Lewis helped organize the March on Washington that took place on August 28, 1963. There, he gave a well-received speech that drew attention to the disconnect between the White House and the thousands of Black citizens suffering from the effects of violence and segregation, and urging for immediate change through nonviolent means.

John Lewis was also directly involved in one of the most iconic events of the civil rights movement, when on March 7, 1965, he participated in a march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama to bring attention to voting rights. As the marchers began crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, dozens of Alabama state troopers waited on the other side. After a brief standoff, when the marchers began to kneel and pray, the officers attacked the marchers, beating the marchers with nightsticks, using tear gas and other weapons. The officers continued to attack the marchers all the way back to a church at the starting point of their march. John Lewis suffered a fractured skull and concussion during the attack. The shocking news footage of the attack, which became known as “Bloody Sunday”, reverberated around the country, influencing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act later that year.

In 1966 Stokely Carmichael was elected chairman of the SNCC, representing the emerging Black Power direction of the movement. Lewis, disappointed by the direction of the SNCC, worked for Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. During the 1970s, Lewis worked on voter education campaigns and economic recovery programs. In 1982, he began his political career by being elected to the Atlanta City Council. From 1986 until his death, Lewis served as Congressional representative of Georgia’s Fifth District. During his time in Congress, he sponsored legislation that created the first national historic park in Georgia, named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Also, Lewis introduced the legislation that established the National Museum of African American History and Culture within the Smithsonian. He was also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and served on important Congressional committees. He became known as the “Conscience of Congress” for his courage, sacrifice, and standing up for disadvantaged people everywhere.

Lewis received many awards, honorary degrees, and commendations throughout his life. In 2011, President Barack Obama presented Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to civilians. Lewis also won the Martin Luther King Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, the Profile in Courage Lifetime Achievement Award from the John F. Kennedy Library, and the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement.

After his death, Lewis became the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the United States Capitol Rotunda. During public viewing, lines stretched for blocks as people waited to pay their respects for this man who gave his body and soul to fighting against injustice, discrimination and segregation.

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