John Robert Lewis
February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020
Notable: Politician & Activist
John Robert Lewis was born in Pike County outside of Troy, Alabama the third of sharecroppers Eddie and Willie Mae Carter Lewis’ 10 children. The family was very poor but despite having to work to help his family, Lewis had an overall happy childhood. Growing up on a farm, Lewis was a bit of an odd duck in that he preferred reading to hunting. As a child, he showed an early passion for public speaking and was given the nickname “Preacher” due to his preaching to the family’s chickens.
Like many others, Lewis had to deal with the iniquities of Jim Crow as a Black child growing up in the 1940s and 50s. His hopes to indulge in his love of reading were dashed when he was prevented from using the local library and his appeals for reconsideration were ignored. Nor did the potential for greater educational opportunities materialize as expected after Brown v. The Board of Education.
Lewis was a teen when he first heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches and coverage of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott showed Lewis that it was possible to take a stand for change.
Educational options were limited for Black students at the high school and especially the college level. Due to segregation, Troy State College (now Troy University) had a long history of not admitting Black students by simply not replying to their applications. Inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Lewis initially considered trying to desegregate the college. He wrote a letter to Dr. King about his Troy application and in response was invited to Montgomery to discuss the matter. This would mark his first meeting with Dr. King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. But he was ultimately discouraged from pursuing the matter by his parents who were afraid for his safety.
Paying for college was also a pressing issue but the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville covered tuition for Black theology students in exchange for them working on campus. Moving to Nashville for college would arguably change the course of John Lewis’ life. When he arrived at college, Lewis had every intention of studying to become a preacher. But his arrival coincided with the Nashville Student Movement with which he would become heavily involved and pulled into the larger Civil Rights Movement.
Lewis joined other students in nonviolent protests and participated in both the lunch counter sit-ins and 1961’s Freedom Rides. From 1963 to 1966, Lewis served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In this role, he was involved with the March on Washington, led the Mississippi Freedom Summer Black voter registration campaign, and was a co-leader of the Selma to Montgomery march that would come to be known as Bloody Sunday.
During this period Lewis would experience countless beatings and over 40 arrests. His pivotal role in these significant moments during the Civil Rights Movement would see him recognized as one of the “Big Six” leaders despite only being in his 20s.
Despite leaving SNCC in 1966, Lewis continued to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement. Upon becoming the director of the Voter Education Project (VEP) in 1970, Lewis led efforts that resulted in the registration of almost 4,000,000 minority voters. He was later tapped by President Jimmy Carter to lead ACTION’s 250,000 volunteers which included members of the Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA).
In 1981, John Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council. Five years later he was elected to the House of Representatives where he represented Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. As a congressman, Lewis wasn’t a notable legislator but became an icon due to his role in the Civil Rights Movement. He championed causes focused on health care reform, poverty, and education. Throughout his life, he received numerous honorary degrees and awards.
In December 2019, Lewis revealed that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer but intended to continue working while receiving treatment. During his final months, Lewis voiced his support for the Black Lives Matter Movement and its young activists. On July 17, 2020, John Lewis died at the age of 80.
- Barrett, Laurence I. 2020. “John Lewis, Front-Line Civil Rights Leader and Eminence of Capitol Hill, Dies at 80.” The Washington Post. WP Company. July 18, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/john-r-lewis-front-line-civil-rights-leader-and-eminence-of-capitol-hill-dies-at-80/2020/07/17/54a67e1a-c3ad-11ea-b4f6-cb39cd8940fb_story.html.
- Brooks, F. Erik. 2015. “John Lewis.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. November 15, 2015. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1841.
- “Congressman John Lewis.” n.d. American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed August 4, 2020. https://www.aclu.org/congressman-john-lewis.
- “John Lewis.” 2020. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. July 18, 2020. https://www.biography.com/political-figure/john-lewis.
- Seelye, Katharine Q. 2020. “John Lewis, Towering Figure of Civil Rights Era, Dies at 80.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. July 18, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/john-lewis-dead.html.
- Wallenfeldt, Jeff. 2020. “John Lewis.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. August 3, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Lewis-American-civil-rights-leader-and-politician.
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