John Robert Lewis was born outside of Troy, Alabama, on February 21, 1940. Lewis had a happy childhood—though he needed to work hard to assist his sharecropper parents—but he chafed against the unfairness of segregation. He was particularly disappointed when the Supreme Court ruling in 1954’s Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka didn’t affect his school life. In 1957, John Lewis left Alabama to attend the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. There, he learned about nonviolent protest and helped to organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. He was arrested during these demonstrations, which upset his mother, but Lewis was committed to the Civil Rights Movement and went on to participate in the Freedom Rides of 1961. Freedom Riders challenged the segregated facilities they encountered at interstate bus terminals in the South, which had been deemed illegal by the Supreme Court. It was dangerous work that resulted in arrests and beatings for many involved, including Lewis. In 1963, Lewis became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That same year, as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, he helped plan the March on Washington. Lewis—the youngest speaker at the event—had to alter his speech in order to please other organizers, but still delivered a powerful oration that declared, “We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.” After the March on Washington, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act became law. However, this did not make it easier for African Americans to vote in the South. To bring attention to this struggle, Lewis and Hosea Williams led a march from Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers were attacked by state troopers. Lewis was severely beaten once more, this time suffering a fractured skull. The violent attacks were recorded and disseminated throughout the country, and the images proved too powerful to ignore. “Bloody Sunday,” as the day was labeled, sped up the passage of 1965’s Voting Rights Act. Lewis left the SNCC in 1966. Though devastated by the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy in 1968, Lewis continued his work to enfranchise minorities. In 1970, he became director of the Voter Education Project. During his tenure, the VEP helped to register millions of minority voters. Lewis ran for office himself in 1981, winning a seat on the Atlanta City Council. In 1986, he was elected to the House of Representatives. Today, representing Georgia’s 5th District, he is one of the most respected members of Congress.
Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis is a great autobiography of him for continuing to read about his journey.
“When I was growing up, my mother and father and family members said, ‘Don’t get in trouble. Don’t get in the way.’ I got in trouble. I got in the way. It was necessary trouble.” —John Lewis