John Lewis

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John Robert Lewis (born February 21, 1940) is an American politician and was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played a key role in the struggle to end segregation. Lewis, a member of the Democratic Party, has represented Georgia's 5th Congressional District (map) in the United States House of Representatives since 1987. The district encompasses almost all of Atlanta.

Early life and activism

Born in Troy, Alabama, the son of Meline Thas, Lewis was educated at the American Baptist Theological Seminary and at Fisk University, both in Nashville, Tennessee, where he became active in the local sit-in movement. He participated in the Freedom Rides to desegregate the South, and was a national leader in the struggle for civil rights.[1]

Lewis was instrumental in organizing student sit-ins, bus boycotts and non-violent protests in the fight for voter and racial equality. He endured brutal beatings by angry mobs and suffered a fractured skull at the hands of Alabama State police as he led a march of 600 people in Selma, Ala. in 1965.[1][2]

Lewis became nationally known during his prominent role in the Selma to Montgomery marches. During the first march police attacked the peaceful demonstrators and beat Lewis mercilessly in public, leaving head wounds that are still visible today. At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963, Lewis, a representative of [SNCC], the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the youngest speaker.[2]

Historian Howard Zinn wrote: "At the great Washington March of 1963, the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), John Lewis, speaking to the same enormous crowd that heard Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, was prepared to ask the right question: 'Which side is the federal government on?’ That sentence was eliminated from his speech by organizers of the March to avoid offending the Kennedy Administration. But Lewis and his fellow SNCC workers had experienced, again and again, the strange passivity of the national government in the face of Southern violence."[3]

"John Lewis and SNCC had reason to be angry. John had been beaten bloody by a white mob in Montgomery as a Freedom Rider in the spring of 1961. The federal government had trusted the notoriously racist Alabama police to protect the Riders, but did nothing itself, except to have FBI agents take notes. Instead of insisting that blacks and whites had a right to ride the buses together, the Kennedy Administration called for a 'cooling-off period,' a moratorium on Freedom Rides.[3]

Lewis at meeting of American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1964

In February 2009, forty-eight years after he had been bloodied by the Klu Klux Klan during civil rights marches, Lewis received an apology on national television from a white southerner, former Klansman Elwin Wilson.[3] [4]

"I'm so sorry about what happened back then," Wilson said breathlessly. "It's OK. I forgive you," Lewis responded. (On national television, both men recalled the incident.) "[I remember] going directly to the Greyhound bus station," Lewis said. "We tried to enter a so-called 'white' waiting room and the moment we started through the door, a group of young men attacked us." Wilson was in the group, but said he "did more than help." He said he was the main attacker. The outburst, Wilson said, was just part of a life of hate he led for years. "I had a black baby doll in this house, and I had a little rope, and I tied it to a limb and let it hang here," he said.[5] [6]

After leaving SNCC in 1966, Lewis worked with community organizations and was named community affairs director for the National Consumer Co-op Bank in Atlanta.

Lewis has cited former Florida Senator and Congressman Claude Pepper, a staunch supporter of the New Deal and an outspoken liberal during his half-century in politics, as being the colleague that he has most admired.[4]

Political career — U.S. Congress

Lewis first ran for elective office in 1977, when a vacancy occurred in Georgia’s 5th District. A special election was called after President Jimmy Carter appointed incumbent Congressman Andrew Young to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Lewis lost the race to Atlanta City Councilman and future Senator Wyche Fowler.

After his unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1977, Lewis was without a job and in debt from his campaign. He accepted a position with the Carter administration as associate director of ACTION, responsible for running the VISTA program, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and the Foster Grandparent Program. He held that job for two and a half years, resigning as the 1980 election approached.[5] In 1981, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council.

In 1986, when Fowler ran for the United States Senate, Lewis defeated fellow civil rights leader Julian Bond in the Democratic primary to succeed Fowler in the 5th District. This win was tantamount to election in the heavily Democratic, majority-black 5th District. Lewis was the second African-American to represent Georgia in Congress since Reconstruction. Young was the first. Lewis has been re-elected ten times without serious opposition, often with over 70 percent of the vote. He has been unopposed for reelection since 2002 but faced two primary opponents in 2008.

Since 1991, Lewis has been senior chief deputy whip in the Democratic caucus. He is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.. He was an influential aide for the Clinton Cabinet, and had regular meetings with the administration.

Lewis is, according to the Associated Press, "the first major House figure to suggest impeaching George W. Bush," arguing that the president "deliberately, systematically violated the law" in authorizing the National Security Agency to conduct wiretaps without a warrant. Lewis said, "He is not King, he is president."[6]

Lewis, an outspoken liberal and staunch opponent of the Iraq War, endorsed Joe Lieberman for re-election to the Senate in 2006, despite Lieberman's loss to Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary.[7]

He was one of the 31 who voted in the House to not count the electoral votes from Ohio in the 2004 presidential election.[8]

Lewis delivered the Commencement Address at the University of Massachusetts Lowell on Sunday June 3, 2007 at Edward A. LeLacheur Park.

In September 2007, Lewis was awarded the Dole Leadership Prize from the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.[9]

On October 1, 2007 Lewis paid tribute to James Meredith at the dedication of The University of Mississippi's James Meredith Monument. The speech and the monument commemorated civil rights pioneer James H. Meredith, who enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 1962, forcing its integration, and later led the 1966 James Meredith March Against Fear. After Meredith was wounded in an assassination attempt, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael continued the march that started the chant "Black Power!"

On October 21, 2007, Lewis helped to welcome the Dalai Lama of Tibet to Atlanta and Emory University.

Lewis is a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

Congressional committee assignments

  • Ways & Means Committee
    • Subcommittee on Oversight (Chairman)
    • Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support
  • Co-chair of the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Caucus
  • Bipartisan Taskforce on Nonproliferation

2008 Presidential election

Democratic candidate support

On October 12, 2007, Lewis endorsed the presidential campaign of Senator Hillary Clinton.[10]

On February 14, 2008, Lewis announced he was considering withdrawing his support from Clinton and might instead cast his superdelegate vote for Barack Obama: "Something is happening in America and people are prepared and ready to make that great leap."[11] On February 27, 2008, Lewis formally changed his support and endorsed Obama.[12][13]

After Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for president, Lewis said “If someone had told me this would be happening now, I would have told them they were crazy, out of their mind, they didn’t know what they were talking about ... I just wish the others were around to see this day. ... To the people who were beaten, put in jail, were asked questions they could never answer to register to vote, it’s amazing.”[14]

Despite switching his support to Obama, Lewis' support of Clinton for several months led to criticism from his constituents. One of his challengers in the House primary election set up campaign headquarters inside the building that served as Obama's Georgia office.[15]

Inauguration Day, 2009

Lewis was present on the stage during the inauguration of Barack Obama, as the only living speaker from the rally at the March on Washington. Obama signed a commemorative photograph for Lewis with the words, “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.”[16]


  1. ^ Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1963-1973, Part Two Carson, Clayborne, Garrow, David, Kovach, Polsgrove, Carol (Editorial Advisory Board), (Library of America: February 2003) ISBN=9781931082297 pp. 15-16, 48, 56, 84, 323, 374, 384, 392, 491-94, 503, 505, 513, 556, 726, 751, 846, 873
  2. ^ "The Sixties". Junior Scholastic. 1994-02-11. p. 6. 
  3. ^ a b "My Name Is Freedom Albany, Georgia". written at Boston (reprint). You Can't Be Neutral on A Moving Train. Beacon Press. 
  4. ^ Smith, Asher (April 21, 2008). "The Tuesday Ten: An Interview with Rep. John Lewis". The Emory Wheel. 
  5. ^ Lewis, Walking with the Wind, pp. 446-451.
  6. ^ Vanden Heuvel, Katrina (January 2, 2006). "The I-Word is Gaining Ground-UPDATED". The Nation. 
  7. ^ Haigh, Susan (July 10, 2006). "Lieberman campaign files forms to run as petitioning candidate -". The Boston Globe (Associated Press). 
  8. ^ "Final Vote Results for Roll Call 7". Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. January 6, 2005. 
  9. ^ "Civil Rights Movement Pioneer to receive Dole Leadership Prize". September 26, 2007. Retrieved on 2008-10-12. 
  10. ^ "Rep. Lewis endorses Clinton". CNN Political Ticker. October 12, 2007. 
  11. ^ Zeleny, Jeff and Patrick Healy (February 15, 2008). "Black Leader, a Clinton Ally, Tilts to Obama". "Representative John Lewis said he planned to cast his vote as a superdelegate for Barack Obama in hopes of preventing a fight at the Democratic convention." 
  12. ^ "Civil rights leader John Lewis switches to Obama" (from the Associate Press). Los Angeles Times. February 28, 2008.,1,3290763.story. Retrieved on 2008-02-28. "The Georgia congressman, who had previously endorsed Clinton, says he wants 'to be on the side of the people.'" 
  13. ^ "Lewis switches from Clinton to Obama". CNN Political Ticker. February 27, 2008. 
  14. ^ Hearn, Josephine Hearn (June 4, 2008). "Black lawmakers emotional about Obama's success". 
  15. ^ Hernandez, Raymond (July 1, 2008). "A New Campaign Charge: You Supported Clinton". New York Times. 
  16. ^ Remnick, David (February 2, 2008). "The President's Hero". 


  • Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1963–1973 (Library of America: 2003) ISBN 1-931082-29-4
  • Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D'Orso, (Harvest Books: 1999) ISBN 0-15-600708-8. The U.S. Congressman tells of life in the trenches of the Civil Rights movement, the numerous arrests, sit-ins, and marches that led to breaking down the barriers of discrimination in the South during the 1950s and 1960s.
  • John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson, illustrated by Benny Andrews, (Lee & Low Books: 2006) ISBN 978-1-58430-250-6. A biography of John Lewis, one of the "Big Six" civil rights leaders of the 1960s, focusing on his involvement in Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, and the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
  • John Lewis: From Freedom Rider to Congressman by Christine M. Hill, (Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2002) ISBN 0-7660-1768-0. A biography of John Lewis written for juvenile readers.

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