Before he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the Fifth Congressional District in Georgia in 1986, Lewis compiled an impressive track record that led many civil and human rights leaders to call him one of the most courageous persons the civil rights movement ever produced. Roll Call magazine once said, “John Lewis is a genuine American hero and moral leader who commands widespread respect in the chamber.”
As a young man from Troy, Ala., Lewis was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a student at Fisk University, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville. During the height of the civil rights movement, from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activism in the movement.
While still a young man, John Lewis became a nationally recognized leader. By 1963, he was dubbed one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement. At the age of 23, he was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August, 1963.
In 1964, Lewis coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The following year, Lewis helped spearhead one of the most seminal moments of the civil rights movement. Hosea Williams, another notable civil rights leader, and Lewis led more than 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, intending to march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday,” which helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
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 the director of the Voter Education Project. In 1977, Lewis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency.
He was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981, and was elected to Congress in 1986. He is Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, a member of its Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, and ranking member of its Subcommittee on Oversight.
Lewis holds a bachelor of arts degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, and he is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville.
He is the recipient of numerous awards from national and international institutions, including the highest civilian honor granted by President Barack Obamathe Medal of Freedom, the Lincoln Medal from the historic Ford’s Theatre, the Golden Plate Award given by the Academy of Excellence, the Preservation Hero award given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Capital Award of the National Council of La Raza, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, the President’s Medal of Georgetown University, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the National Education Association Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Award, and the only John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for Lifetime Achievement ever granted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
Lewis is the author of a new book titled Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change (2012), and his biography is titled Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998).