Biography of John Lewis, Civil Rights Activist and Politician

John Lewis receives the 2010 Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

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John Lewis (February 21, 1940—July 17, 2020) was an American politician and civil rights leader who served as a United States Representative for the Fifth Congressional District in Georgia from 1987 until he died in 2020. 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.

Fast Facts: John Lewis

  • Full Name: John Robert Lewis
  • Known For: Civil Rights Leader and Member of U.S. Congress
  • Born: February 21, 1940 in Troy, Alabama, U.S.
  • Parents: Willie Mae Carter and Eddie Lewis
  • Died: July 17, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
  • Education: American Baptist Theological Institute and Fisk University (BA)
  • Published Works: "March" (trilogy)
  • Awards and Honors: Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2011
  • Spouse: Lillian Miles Lewis
  • Children: John-Miles Lewis
  • Notable Quote: “I believe in freedom of speech, but I also believe that we have an obligation to condemn speech that is racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic, or hateful.”

Early Life and Education

John Robert Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama, 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, Alabama. 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 moved 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, he began attending direct action workshops organized by James Lawson. Lewis also began to follow the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence, becoming involved in student sit-ins to integrate movie theaters, restaurants, and businesses organized by the 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. In 1963, Lewis was named chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee.

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

Civil Rights Activist

After first meeting Martin Luther King in 1958, Lewis quickly gained recognition as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. By 1963, he was dubbed one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Movement along with Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young.

In 1963, Lewis helped form and soon chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which organized and staged desegregation sit-ins, marches, and other peaceful forms of student activism during the height of the Movement.

A mug shot of civil rights activist John Lewis, following his arrest in Jackson, Mississippi for using a restroom reserved for 'white' people during the Freedom Ride demonstration against racial segregation, 24th May 1961.
A mug shot of civil rights activist John Lewis, following his arrest in Jackson, Mississippi for using a restroom reserved for 'white' people during the Freedom Ride demonstration against racial segregation, 24th May 1961. Kypros/Getty Images

At age 23, Lewis was the organizer and keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom held on August 28, 1963. It was at this event that a crowd of up to 300,000 supporters saw Martin Luther King Jr., standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, deliver his historic “I Have a Dream” speech demanding an end to racial discrimination.

On March 7, 1965, Lewis helped lead one of the most decisive moments of the Civil Rights Movement. Walking alongside Hosea Williams, another notable Civil Rights leader, Lewis led more than 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to demonstrate the need for Black voting rights in the state. Pettus, who represented Alabama in the United States Senate from 1897 to 1907, had been a senior officer of the Confederate States Army and was later elected grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. During their march, Lewis and his fellow protestors were attacked by Alabama state police in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” News coverage of the march and the violent attack on peaceful protestors exposed the cruelty of the segregated South and helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) speaks to the crowd at the Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing reenactment marking 55th anniversary of Selma's Bloody Sunday on March 1, 2020 in Selma, Alabama.
Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) speaks to the crowd at the Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing reenactment marking 55th anniversary of Selma's Bloody Sunday on March 1, 2020 in Selma, Alabama. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Even after enduring physical attacks, serious injuries, and more than 40 arrests, Lewis’ devotion to nonviolent resistance to racism remained steadfast. In 1966, he left the SNCC to become Associate Director of the Field Foundation where he organized voter registration programs throughout the South. As director of the Foundation’s Voter Education Project, Lewis’ efforts helped add nearly four million people from minority groups to the voter registration rolls, forever changing the nation’s political climate.

Lewis' Career in Politics 

In 1981, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council. Then, in 1986, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Lewis was re-elected 16 times, running unopposed in 1996, 2004 and 2008, and again in 2014 and 2018. Only once, in 1994, did he win less than 70% of the vote in the general election.

He was 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, called him 'the conscience of the U.S. Congress.'"

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

In 2003, President George W. Bush signed a bill Lewis had first proposed in 1988 creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture, now located adjacent to the Washington Memorial.

Lewis' Awards

Lewis was awarded the Wallenberg Medal from the University of Michigan in 1999 for his work as an 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.

Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011, and in 2012, he was awarded LLD degrees from Brown University, Harvard University, and the University of Connecticut School of Law.

Death

Lewis died at age 80 on July 17, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia, after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Of his experience with cancer, Lewis stated, “I have been in some kind of fight—for freedom, equality, basic human rights—for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”

People take part in a candlelight vigil for U.S. Rep John Lewis on July 19, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia.
People take part in a candlelight vigil for U.S. Rep John Lewis on July 19, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

President Donald Trump ordered flags nationwide to be flown at half-staff. Former President Barack Obama praised Lewis as having had an “enormous impact” on America’s history. Soon after his death, several members of Congress vowed to introduce bills to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, after Lewis.

Updated by Robert Longley 

Sources and Further Reference

  • “Congressman John R. Lewis: Champion of Civil Rights.” Academy of Achievement, https://achievement.org/achiever/congressman-john-r-lewis/.
  • Eberhart, George M. “John Lewis’s March.” American Libraries, June 30, 2013, https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/john-lewiss-march/.
  • Holmes, Marian Smith. “The Freedom Riders, Then and Now.” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2009, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-freedom-riders-then-and-now-45351758/?c=y&page=1.
  • “John Lewis: 'I thought I was going to die'.” CNN/US, May 10, 2001, https://edition.cnn.com/2001/US/05/10/access.lewis.freedom.rides/.
  • Banks, Adelle M. “Died: John Lewis, Preaching Politician and Civil Rights Leader.” Christianity Today, July 18, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/july/died-john-lewis-baptist-minister-civil-rights-leader.html.