John Robert Lewis (born 1940), a veteran of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives by the citizens of Atlanta, Georgia, in 1986.
John R. Lewis, a native of Troy, Alabama, first achieved national attention while he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the 1960s. Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, to Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis. He was one of ten children. The family led a relatively simple rural existence, with Eddie working as a tenant farmer and later a land holder while Willie Mae earned money by taking in laundry. The Lewis children were raised in a religious atmosphere characterized by loving concern for each child. No amount of love, however, could shield young John from the adverse effects of racial segregation then prevalent in Alabama. He was bussed past a well-equipped high school for white children to a one-room schoolhouse which only inadequately served the needs of African American students. Even as a schoolboy, Lewis observed that roads and modern conveniences which aided the development of the white community were denied to poverty-stricken African American neighborhoods in the Troy area.
While he was a teenager Lewis felt the call to the gospel ministry and began to preach periodically in local churches. He listened regularly to a radio gospel program presented by a young Boston-trained theologian, Martin Luther King, Jr., and was inspired because King, a southern African American man, was intelligent, articulate, and interesting. King also had thoughtful ideas about addressing the problems of racial injustice through passive resistance. When Lewis was 15 he learned of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott led by King, Ralph D. Abernathy, and other members of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The MIA led the vast majority of the African Americans in the city in their decision to refuse to ride the segregated city busses unless they were treated more fairly by white drivers and passengers. It filled Lewis with pride to see the African American community of Montgomery acting in concert and with determination to continue the boycott until the bus company agreed to their demands. The boycott drew national and international attention, and many people, both African American and white, rejoiced when, after a year-long struggle, the city bus company agreed to give African American passengers the same rights as whites and pledged to hire some African American bus drivers.
Lewis had much more than a passing interest in the boycott: it inspired him to want an active role in the civil rights struggle. He was not yet sure exactly what he could do, but he was a willing volunteer long before he could become actively involved. As King and Abernathy found in their religion an avenue for social action, so Lewis began to pursue more actively his own theological training with a view toward doing the same. He traveled to Tennessee, where he attended the American Baptist Seminary and later enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville. Both of these institutions of higher learning were open primarily to African American students.
Lewis was kept from actively participating in civil rights agitation for a while by his parents who were frightened for his life. But in 1960, after four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro sat down in the "white-only" section of the local Woolworth's lunch counter and refused to move, hundreds of African American and white students all over the South determined to follow their example. Such "sit-ins" provoked a spontaneous but quiet revolution which allowed students to register their protests without harming anyone or destroying any property. The students welcomed being jailed as a result of their sit-ins and, because of the publicity it gave to their cause, they often refused to post bail.
Though Lewis's parents continued to urge him not to get involved, he felt that at 20 he knew his own mind. He joined the lunch counter sit-in demonstrations that were taking place in Nashville. Soon he had been jailed four times, but this was just the beginning of the violence that would be inflicted on this apostle of nonviolence. Before the federal Civil Rights Act was passed four years later in 1964, Lewis had been jailed and beaten many times and had suffered a fractured skull at the hands of an angry white mob in Selma, Alabama, during the 1963 Selma to Montgomery protest march.
Because of the spontaneity of the sit-ins, the students had no organizational body or any general affiliation with existing civil rights groups. Ella Baker, the executive secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC, King's regional organization), called a meeting in 1960 to help the students get organized. The students met at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in April 1960. There, with Lewis as a co-founder along with about 200 other students, SNCC was formed. The students refused to affiliate with any of the existing major civil rights groups such as the SCLC, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), or the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), formed their own organization, and elected Marion Barry, a graduate student at Fisk University, as their first chairman.
After a 1961 Supreme Court decision declaring illegal all segregation in interstate bus depots and on busses, CORE leaders decided to stage a "freedom ride" from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. Their purpose was to ignore all traditional forms of segregation on the busses and in the terminals. Led by CORE director James Farmer, 13 freedom riders, seven African Americans and six whites, left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. Lewis was among them. The riders, who had pledged themselves to nonviolence, were brutally beaten during the ride. Lewis was the first to be attacked. Finally, when the Greyhound bus that some of the demonstrators were riding in was burned outside of Anniston, Alabama, the CORE volunteers were ready to discontinue their protest. SNCC members including Lewis refused to be dissuaded from their cause and continued the freedom rides. Lewis also led marches against segregated movie theaters in Nashville, again prompting numerous arrests as well as physical and verbal abuse by local whites. Through it all Lewis maintained a path of nonviolence toward achieving civil rights.
Lewis was unanimously elected chairman of SNCC in 1963 and served until 1966 when Stokely Carmichael, the proponent of the more aggressive "Black power" strategy, won his seat. During the time that he was chairman Lewis had the opportunity to be one of the speakers during the August 28, 1963, March on Washington, when nearly 250,000 African Americans and whites converged on the U.S. capital to stage a peaceful march for jobs and freedom. After he was ousted as SNCC chairman, Lewis went on to work for the Field Foundation, where in a number of capacities he continued his efforts. One of the most significant roles he played at the foundation was as director of its Voter Education Project (VEP). From 1970 through 1977, Lewis led grass roots efforts to organize southern African American voters, politically educate the youth the give voter assistance programs. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed his to be director of US operations for ACTION, a federal agency overseeing economic recovery programs on the community level.
Determined to have a greater voice in community issues, Lewis became more involved in mainstream politics. In 1982 he was elected to Atlanta City Council where he was known for his close attention to the needs of the poor and the elderly. Twenty years after he stepped down as the leader of SNCC, Lewis, a member of the Atlanta city council, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives after a hard fought battle with his former SNCC co-worker, Georgia state senator Julian Bond. Lewis' reputation as a diligent listener to the needs of the poor, elderly African Americans and labor carried him onto victory.
As a Congressman, Lewis carried on the fight for civil rights. Although critics accused him of not having effective strategies for adapting his positions to the changing needs of African Americans, he nonetheless remained a voice calling for a "sense of shared purpose, of basic morality that speaks to blacks and whites alike". In 1991, Lewis became one of the three chief deputy whips for the Democratic Party, one of the most influential positions in the House. His criticism of House speaker Newt Gingrich brought him to the forefront of controversy in 1996, although he was considered a moderate by many African Americans. In 1994, during a speech to African Leaders in Ghana, Lewis summed up his experience and his commitment to civil rights for all peoples: "Do not give up, do not give out, and do not give in. We must hold on and we must not get lost in a sea of despair."
John Lewis died at the age of 80 on July 17, 2020 due to pancreatic cancer.
Further Reading on John Robert Lewis
Although there is no full-length biography available on Lewis, there are several histories of SNCC which provide information about his life— Howard Zinn, SNCC, The New Abolitionists (originally published 1964, revised 1985); Cleveland Sellers, The River of No Return (1973); James Foreman, The Making of African American Revolutionaries (1972, 1985); and Clayborne Carson, In Struggle (1981). In addition an in depth article in The New Republic July 1, 1996 offers excellent biographical and political information.