“Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society.
Why? Because human beings are the most dynamic link to the divine on this planet.”
- John R. Lewis
John Robert Lewis was born near Troy, Alabama, on February 21, 1940, the third of ten children of Willie Mae (née Carter) and Eddie Lewis. His parents were sharecroppers in rural Pike County, Alabama, of which Troy was the county seat. As a boy, Lewis aspired to be a preacher, and at age five, he preached to his family's chickens on the farm.
In 1955, Lewis first heard Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio, and he closely followed King's Montgomery bus boycott later that year. At age 15, Lewis preached his first public sermon. At 17, Lewis met Rosa Parks, notable for her role in the bus boycott, and met King for the first time at the age of 18.
After writing to King about being denied admission to Troy University in Alabama, Lewis was invited to meet with him. King, who referred to Lewis as "the boy from Troy", discussed suing the university for discrimination, but he warned Lewis that doing so could endanger his family in Troy. After discussing it with his parents, Lewis decided instead to proceed with his education at a small, historically black college in Tennessee. Lewis graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, and was ordained as a Baptist minister. He then earned a bachelor's degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, also a historically black college, where he was a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.
As a student, Lewis became an activist in the civil rights movement. He organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville and took part in many other civil rights activities as part of the Nashville Student Movement. The Nashville sit-in movement was responsible for the desegregation of lunch counters in the city's downtown.
Lewis was arrested and jailed many times during the nonviolent activities to desegregate the city's downtown businesses. He was also instrumental in organizing bus boycotts and other nonviolent protests to support voting rights and racial equality.
During this time, Lewis said it was important to engage in "good trouble, necessary trouble" in order to achieve change, and he held to this credo throughout his life. While a student, Lewis was invited to attend nonviolence workshops held at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church by the Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Kelly Miller Smith. Lewis and other students became dedicated to the discipline and philosophy of nonviolence, which he practiced for the rest of his life.
In 1961, Lewis became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. The group of seven blacks and six whites planned to ride on interstate buses from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans to challenge the policies of Southern states along the route that had imposed segregated seating on the buses, violating federal policy for interstate transportation. The Freedom Ride, originated by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and revived by James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was initiated to pressure the federal government to enforce the Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia (1960) that declared segregated interstate bus travel to be unconstitutional.
The Freedom Rides revealed the passivity of local, state and federal governments in the face of violence against law-abiding citizens. The project was publicized; and organizers had notified the Department of Justice about it. It depended on the Alabama police to protect the riders, although the state was known for notorious racism. It did not undertake actions except assigning FBI agents to record incidents. After extreme violence broke out in South Carolina and Alabama, the Kennedy Administration called for a cooling-off period, with a moratorium on Freedom Rides.
In the South, Lewis and other nonviolent Freedom Riders were beaten by angry mobs and arrested. At age 21, Lewis was the first of the Freedom Riders to be assaulted while in Rock Hill, South Carolina. When he tried to enter a whites-only waiting room, two white men attacked him, injuring his face and kicking him in the ribs. Two weeks later Lewis joined a "Freedom Ride" bound for Jackson, Mississippi. Near the end of his life, Lewis said of this time, "We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal. We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back." As a result of his Freedom Rider activities, Lewis was imprisoned for 40 days in the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County.
After serving as Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Associate Director of the Field Foundation, Lewis became the Director of the Southern Regional Council's Community Organization Project. During this time he completed his degree from Fisk University and in 1970 took on the role of Director of The Voter Education Project.
In 1981 Lewis was elected Council-Member -At Large for the Atlanta City Council where he served until 1986. In 1988, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia's 5th Congressional District. He was re-elected 18 times.
In 1988, the year after he was sworn into Congress, Lewis introduced a bill to create a national African American museum in Washington. The bill failed, and for 15 years he continued to introduce it with each new Congress. Each time it was blocked in the Senate, most often by conservative Southern Senator Jesse Helms. In 2003, Helms retired. The bill won bipartisan support, and President George W. Bush signed the bill to establish the museum, with the Smithsonian's Board of Regents to establish the location. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, located adjacent to the Washington Memorial, held its opening ceremony on September 25, 2016.
On December 29, 2019, Congressman Lewis announced that he had been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. He remained in the Washington D.C. area for his treatment. 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."
On July 17, 2020, Congressman Lewis died at the age of 80 after an eight-month battle with the disease in Atlanta.
Good and Necessary Trouble...the Legacy Continues.