Former congressman who demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. Dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing personal dignity and building what he called "The Beloved Community."
Featured lessonNon-violent activism and community organizing
One of the most courageous people the civil rights movement ever produced, U.S. Congressman John Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he described as “The Beloved Community” in America.
The “conscience of the U.S. Congress” grew up as the son of sharecroppers. He was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery bus boycott, a protest campaign against racial segregation on public transit that started in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama; and by the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to become a part of the civil rights movement, a mass protest against racial segregation and discrimination in the U.S. that peaked between 1955 and 1965.
As a student at American Baptist College, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations, was one of the Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States, and was named Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form.
By 1963, Lewis was dubbed one of the Big Six leaders of the civil rights movement. At twenty-three, he was an architect of, and a keynote speaker at, the historic March on Washington in August 1963. Attended by some 250,000 people, it was the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation’s capital. The event is remembered for Lewis’ keynote address and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
In 1964, he coordinated voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a campaign in June 1964 that attempted to register as many African-American voters as possible. The following year, Lewis helped lead more than 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, with intentions to march to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday” and hastened the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Despite more than forty arrests, physical attacks, and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of non-violence. After leaving SNCC in 1966, he continued his commitment to the civil rights movement as associate director of the Field Foundation and his participation in the Southern Regional Council’s voter registration programs. Lewis went on to become director of the Voter Education Project (VEP). Under his leadership, the VEP transformed the nation’s political climate by adding nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls.
He was elected to Congress in November 1986 and has served as U.S. Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since then.
John Lewis holds a B.A. in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, and is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary. He has been awarded more than ﬁfty honorary degrees and has received numerous awards from eminent national and international institutions, including the only John F. Kennedy Proﬁle in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement ever granted.
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