Lewis, John Robert

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Lewis, John Robert

John Robert Lewis first achieved national attention while he was chairman of the student nonviolent coordinating committee (SNCC) during the 1960s and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986. Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, to Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis in Troy, Alabama.

While he was a teenager, Lewis felt the call to the Christian 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 age 15, he learned of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott led by King, Ralph David 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 buses 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. After a year-long struggle, the bus company agreed to their demands.

"If we are ever to move toward a colorblind society, one America, one society, one family, one people—we must have policies that promote and encourage diversity."
—John Lewis

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 A&T College in Greensboro sat down in the "whites only" section of the local Woolworth's lunch counter and refused to move, hundreds of African-American and white students all over the South followed their example. Although Lewis's parents urged him to remain uninvolved, he joined the lunch counter sit-in demonstrations that were taking place in Nashville. Before the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, 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 1965 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 at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in April 1960. 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), and formed their own organization. There, with Lewis as a cofounder, along with about 200 other students, SNCC was formed.

After a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring illegal all Segregation in interstate bus depots and on buses, CORE leaders decided to stage a "freedom ride" from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. Led by CORE director James Farmer, seven African-American and six white freedom riders 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. 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 was one of the speakers during the August 28, 1963, March on Washington, when nearly 250,000 people converged on the U.S. capital to stage a peaceful protest for freedom and fairness in hiring practices. After he was ousted as SNCC chairman, Lewis went on to work for the Field Foundation. One of his most significant roles there was as director of its Voter Education Project. From 1970 through 1977, Lewis led grass-roots efforts to organize Southern African-American voters and to educate the youth politically. In 1977, President jimmy carter appointed Lewis to be director of U.S. operations for ACTION, a federal agency overseeing economic recovery programs at the community level.

In 1982, Lewis 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 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. Although, as a congressman, critics accused him of not 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 many African-Americans considered him to be a moderate. 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."

In 1998, Lewis published his autobiography: Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. In 2000, he participated in a gathering in Selma, Alabama, commemorating the 35th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery protest march.

In 2003, Lewis was a member of the House Budget Committee, and served on the Subcommittee on Health that is part of the House Ways and Means Committee. He was also Senior Chief Deputy Democratic Whip in the 108th Congress, as well as a member of the Democratic Steering Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists. Lewis additionally served as co-chair of the Faith and Politics Institute.

Lewis has been the recipient of numerous and awards and honors, including the National Constitution Center's "We the People" Award, the NAACP's Spingarn Medal, and the National Education Association's Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award. In March 2003, Lewis led a group of fellow representatives and other politicians on a "Civil Rights Pilgrimage," a tour of significant sites in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, Alabama. The purpose of the tour was to acquaint political leaders with the history of the Civil Rights Movement and to encourage dialogue on the topics of race and civil rights in the United States.

Further readings

John Lewis House of Representatives site. 2003. Available online at <www.house.gov/johnlewis> (accessed April 21, 2003).

Lewis, John, with Michael D'Orso. 1999. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.