John Lewis: Civil Rights Activist and Elected Politician

ASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15: U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) (R) is presented with the 2010 Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama during an East Room event at the White House
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Overview

John Lewis is currently a United States Representative for the Fifth Congressional District in Georgia. But during the 1960s, Lewis was a college student and served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Working first with other college students and later with prominent civil rights leaders, Lewis helped to end segregation and discrimination during the Civil Rights Movement.

Early Life and Education

John Robert Lewis was born in Troy, Ala., on February 21, 1940. His parents, Eddie and Willie Mae both worked as sharecroppers to support their ten children.  

Lewis attended the Pike County Training High School in Brundidge, Ala., When Lewis was a teenager, he became inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr by listening to his sermons on the radio. Lewis was so inspired by King's work that he began preaching at local churches. When he graduated from high school, Lewis attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville.

In 1958, Lewis traveled to Montgomery and met King for the first time. Lewis wanted to attend the all-white Troy State University and sought the civil rights leader's help in suing the institution. Although King, Fred Gray and Ralph Abernathy offered Lewis legal and financial assistance, his parents were against the lawsuit.

As a result, Lewis returned to American Baptist Theological Seminary.

That fall, Lewis began attending direct action workshops organized by James Lawson. Lewis also began to follow the Gandian philosophy of nonviolence, becoming involved in student sit-ins to integrate movie theaters, restaurants and businesses organized by Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Lewis graduated from American Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961.

The SCLC considered Lewis "one of the most dedicated young men in our movement." Lewis was elected to the board of SCLC in 1962 to encourage more young people to join the organization. And by 1963, Lewis was named chairman of SNCC.

Civil Rights Activist

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis was the chairman of SNCC. Lewis established Freedom Schools and the Freedom Summer. By 1963, Lewis was considered on the "Big Aix" leaders of the Civil Rights Movement which included Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer Jr., and Roy Wilkins. That same year, Lewis helped plan the March on Washington and was the youngest speaker at the event.

When Lewis left SNCC in 1966, he worked with several community organizations before becoming community affairs director for the National Consumer Co-Op Bank in Atlanta.

Politics

In 1981, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council.

In 1986, Lewis was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Since his election, he has been reelected 13 times. During his tenure, Lewis ran unopposed in 1996, 2004 and 2008.

He is considered a liberal member of the House and in 1998, The Washington Post said that Lewis was a "fiercely partisan Democrat but…also fiercely independent." Atlanta Journal-Constitution said that Lewis was "the only former major civil rights leader who extended his fight for human rights and racial reconciliation to the halls of Congress." And " "those who know him, from U.S. Senators to 20-something congressional aides, call him 'conscience of Congress.

Lewis serves on the Committee on Ways and Means. He is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Progressive Caucus and Congressional Caucus on Global Road Safety.

Awards

Lewis was awarded the Wallenberg Medal from the University of Michigan in 1999 for his work as a activist of civil and human rights.

In 2001, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation awarded Lewis with the Profile in Courage Award.  

The following year Lewis received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. In 2012, Lewis was awarded LL.D degrees from Brown University, Harvard University and the University of Connecticut School of Law.

Family Life

Lewis married Lillian Miles in 1968. The couple had one son, John Miles. His wife died in December of 2012.