Written By Carlota Morgado de Almeida
In our Icon Series, we reflect upon individuals who have laid the foundation for our journey toward justice and equity. The New Hampshire Center for Justice & Equity celebrates the extraordinary life of John Lewis.
About John Lewis
John Lewis, a prominent figure in the American civil rights movement, dedicated his life to fighting for justice, equality, and human rights. From his early activism as a student to his decades-long tenure as a respected congressman, Lewis left an invaluable mark on the struggle for racial equity and social justice in the United States. Through his commitment to nonviolent protest and his persistent pursuit of equality for all, John Lewis became synonymous with courage and perseverance. In this article, we delve into the extraordinary life and legacy of John Lewis, the “conscience of the Congress.”
Early Life in the Segregated South
John Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, in Troy, Alabama, at a time when racial segregation and discrimination ran deep in the American South. The son of sharecroppers, Lewis leaned toward activism from an early age. Even before turning 16 years old, Lewis preached a sermon at his family church that made it to his hometown’s newspaper. He took inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership and Rosa Parks’ courage that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. These experiences fueled Lewis’ passion for social justice and set him on a lifelong path of advocacy and activism.
As a young man, Lewis was drawn to the philosophy of nonviolent resistance and became involved in various civil rights activities, including sit-ins, freedom rides, and voter registration campaigns. In February 1960, he was arrested for the first time, along with other students who organized a series of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville. In 1961, Lewis was arrested once again with other Freedom Riders for defying to observe the segregationist practices aboard interstate buses. The repetition of these experiences throughout his youth shows Lewis’ commitment to the principles of nonviolence and justice, despite the beatings and aggression that protesters were often met with.
The March on Washington and Civil Rights Leadership
In 1963, John Lewis was elected to replace Chuck McDew as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which made him more visible in the public space. In the same year, Lewis played a key leadership role in the historic March on Washington, one of his most notable contributions to the civil rights movement. Still in his 20s, and as the youngest speaker at the event, Lewis delivered a passionate speech emphasizing the urgency of civil rights legislation and racial equality.
By the mid-1960s, Lewis was considered one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement, along with Roy Wilkins, Philip Randolph, Whitney Young, James Farmer, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was instrumental in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, where he and other civil rights activists faced brutal violence at the hands of state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The events of what became known as “Bloody Sunday” brought national attention to the cause and ultimately led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Political Career and Legacy
After years of grassroots movements, John Lewis’ activism culminated in his first run for Congress in 1977. Although Lewis’ first campaign was unsuccessful, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to direct ACTION, the umbrella federal volunteer agency that included the Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). Lewis transitioned to a career in politics when he entered elective office as an Atlanta city councilman in 1981 and later won a seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1986.
Throughout his tenure as a Democratic congressman, representing Georgia’s 5th congressional district, Lewis remained a steadfast advocate for civil rights, social justice, and equality. He championed voting rights, healthcare, and immigration reform and held vocal anti-war positions relating to Iraq. Lewis also had an instrumental role in the creation of the National Museum of African American History, co-authoring and sponsoring the legislation that created the museum. Showing the same perseverance he had demonstrated during his lifelong activism, he submitted the bill for discussion every year for 15 consecutive years until it was passed by Congress and signed into law in 2003.
His support of the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration made Lewis the target of racial slurs, and his advocacy continued throughout the Trump administration. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Lewis took to non-violent protesting once again by not attending President Trump’s inauguration ceremony, citing his concerns about the legitimacy of the election’s outcome.
Lewis’ literary pursuits blossomed later in life, with the exception of the memoir Walking in the Wind, which he co-wrote with Michael D’Orso in 1998. From the 2010s onwards, Lewis coauthored or authored several new books, including a trilogy of autobiographical graphic novels titled March (2013, 2015, 2016) recounting his experiences in the civil rights movement. Lewis hoped the series would impact young people in the same way that he was inspired by the graphic novel Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story (1958).
John Lewis’s legacy is one of resilience, bravery, and unwavering commitment to the cause of justice. He was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize in 1975, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2001, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Spingarn Medal in 2002. In 2011 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
A Life of “Good Trouble”
Lewis’s dedication to public service was guided by his belief in the power of ordinary people to effect positive change in their communities and the world. He often emphasized the importance of getting into “good trouble, necessary trouble” in the pursuit of justice and equality. His commitment to nonviolent protest and his belief in the inherent goodness of humanity served as guiding principles throughout his life and made him remembered as “the conscience of Congress”.
John Lewis’ passing on July 17, 2020, from pancreatic cancer, marked the end of an era, but his work laid the foundation for significant legislative changes and paved the way for a more inclusive and equitable society. His impact on American politics and society remains profound, serving as a reminder of the importance of perseverance, courage, and the relentless pursuit of justice and equity.
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Learn More About John Lewis
LEWIS, John R. – History art and Archives: The United States House of Representatives
John Lewis – Biography