John Robert Lewis (February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020) was an American statesman and civil rights activist who served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020. He was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966. Lewis was one of the “Big Six” leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He fulfilled many key roles in the civil rights movement and its actions to end legalized racial segregation in the United States. In 1965, Lewis led the first of three Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In an incident which became known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers and police attacked the marchers, including Lewis.
A member of the Democratic Party, Lewis was first elected to Congress in 1986 and served 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. The district he represented included most of Atlanta. Due to his length of service, he became the dean of the Georgia congressional delegation. While in the House, Lewis was one of the leaders of the Democratic Party, serving from 1991 as a Chief Deputy Whip and from 2003 as a Senior Chief Deputy Whip. John Lewis received many honorary degrees and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
John Robert Lewis was born near Troy, Alabama, on February 21, 1940, the third of ten children of Willie Mae (née Carter) and Eddie Lewis. His parents were sharecroppers in rural Pike County, Alabama, of which Troy was the county seat.
As a boy, Lewis aspired to be a preacher, and at age five, he preached to his family’s chickens on the farm. As a young child, Lewis had little interaction with white people, as his county was majority black by a large percentage and his family worked as farmers. By the time he was six, Lewis had seen only two white people in his life. Lewis recalls “I grew up in rural Alabama, very poor, very few books in our home.” He describes his early education at a little school, walking distance from his home. “A beautiful little building, it was a Rosenwald School. It was supported by the community, it was the only school we had.” “I had a wonderful teacher in elementary school, and she told me ‘read my child, read!’ And I tried to read everything. I loved books. I remember in 1956, when I was 16 years old, with some of my brothers and sisters and cousins, going down to the public library, trying to get a library card, and we were told the library was for whites only and not for coloureds.” As he grew older, he began taking trips into Troy with his family, where he continued to have experiences of racism and segregation. Lewis had relatives who lived in northern cities, and he learned from them that in the North schools, buses, and businesses were integrated. When Lewis was 11, an uncle took him to Buffalo, New York, where he became acutely aware of the contrast with Troy’s segregation.
In 1955, Lewis first heard Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio, and he closely followed King’s Montgomery bus boycott later that year. At age 15, Lewis preached his first public sermon. At 17, Lewis met Rosa Parks, notable for her role in the bus boycott, and met King for the first time at the age of 18. In later years, Lewis also credited evangelist Billy Graham, a friend of King’s, as someone who “helped change me”. Lewis also stated that Graham inspired him “to a significant degree” to fulfill his aspirations of becoming a minister.
After writing to King about being denied admission to Troy University in Alabama, Lewis was invited to meet with him. King, who referred to Lewis as “the boy from Troy”, discussed suing the university for discrimination, but he warned Lewis that doing so could endanger his family in Troy. After discussing it with his parents, Lewis decided instead to proceed with his education at a small, historically black college in Tennessee.
Lewis graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, and was ordained as a Baptist minister. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, also a historically black college, where he was a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.