Video still of John Lewis

John Lewis

U.S. House of Representatives

John Lewis was the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District (D-GA). He served in Congress starting in 1987, and was a leader in the civil rights movement.

Lewis was born the son of sharecroppers on February 21, 1940. He attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. As a young boy, he was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

As a student at Fisk University, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1961, he volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides. Lewis was beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South.

From 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. At the age of 23, he was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963. In 1964, John Lewis coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The following year, Lewis helped spearhead one of the most seminal moments of the civil rights movement. Hosea Williams, another notable civil rights leader, and Lewis led over 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. After leaving SNCC in 1966, he continued his commitment to the civil rights movement as Associate Director of the Field Foundation and his participation in the Southern Regional Council’s voter registration programs. Lewis went on to become the Director of the Voter Education Project (VEP). Under his leadership, the VEP transformed the nation’s political climate by adding nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls.

Lewis held a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University and was a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville, Tennessee. He authored Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change (Hyperion, 2012), and his biography is entitled Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (Simon & Schuster, 1998).

Lewis’s videos are used in these Choices Program curriculum units:
Freedom Now: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi
Competing Visions of Human Rights: Questions for U.S. Policy

We mourn the death of John Lewis in July 2020.
He was our colleague and friend.

Back to top