Oxford AASC: Lewis, John

Lewis, John

(21 Feb. 1940– ),

civil rights leader and member of Congress, was born John Robert Lewis near Troy, Alabama, the third of seven children. Lewis's father, Eddie, was a sharecropper and small farmer, and his mother, Willie Mae, occasionally did laundry. Both of his parents were deeply religious, which may have helped shape Lewis's lifelong commitment to Christianity. As a young man, Lewis recalls, he heard Martin Luther King Jr. preach on the radio and was inspired to make the ministry his vocation. Starting by preaching in the woods near his home, eventually he was allowed to preach at local churches. In 1957 he became the first of his family to graduate from high school. After graduating, Lewis enrolled in the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1958, at the age of eighteen, he met Dr. King, and his life was changed forever: he decided to devote it to the struggle for civil rights. Two months before the famous 1960 sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, Lewis led sit-ins in Nashville. Although he was doused with cleansing powder and abused in other ways, the sit-ins eventually resulted in the desegregation of Nashville lunch counters. After graduating from seminary in 1961, Lewis enrolled at Fisk University, planning to study religion and philosophy. In 1963, however, he dropped out of college to devote his time to work in the civil rights movement. (In 1967 he returned to Fisk to earn a BA.) In 1968 Lewis married Lillian Miles; they adopted a son, John Miles.

In the spring of 1960 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed, with several Nashville students in leadership positions, notably Marion Barry, Diane Nash, and James Lawson. By 1961, two northerners, Bob Moses and James Forman, had also emerged as prominent SNCC activists. This interracial organization of black and white college students was created to coordinate student participation in the civil rights movement. Between 1961 and 1965 SNCC played a pivotal role in that movement, working on voter registration campaigns in the most dangerous areas of the rural south. In a sense, SNCC made up the movement's front-line troops, and the young women and men in the organization exhibited extraordinary courage in facing danger and death. But of all the brave people in SNCC, perhaps none exhibited greater courage than Lewis. As Worth Long, a colleague in SNCC, said, “John was the most courageous person that I ever worked with in the movement…. John would not just follow you into the lion's den, he would lead you into it” (Carson, 203). In 1961 Lewis was beaten unconscious in Montgomery, Alabama, in one of the first Freedom Rides to challenge segregated interstate bus travel, and in 1965 he suffered a similar fate as he helped lead a march from Selma to Montgomery in the movement's last great protest. Arrested more than forty times, Lewis invariably responded peacefully and with expressions of Christian faith and love. Many years later, reflecting on Lewis's work in the movement, Time referred to him as a “living saint” (Barone, 299).

Lewis, John

John Lewis speaking at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 16 April 1964.

(Library of Congress.)

view larger image

In 1963 Lewis was selected SNCC's second chair, succeeding Marion Barry. (Barry later became mayor of Washington, D.C.) As head of SNCC, Lewis was part of the so-called “Big Six” civil rights leadership group. This informal group attempted to develop and coordinate movement strategy. In addition to Lewis, the group comprised Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, and Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women. At the 1963 March on Washington, Lewis, in his capacity as SNCC chair, was among the persons designated to give one of the major speeches. The other leaders thought his prepared text too radical, and he was asked to tone it down. Lewis initially refused, but after much cajoling he agreed to the rewriting of the speech (removing some of the language considered too radical or revolutionary). Nevertheless, the speech as delivered was the most militant of the day, reflecting the fact that SNCC was the most self-consciously radical of the major civil rights organizations.

Ironically, SNCC's evolving militancy and radicalism would lead to Lewis's ouster as SNCC chairman. In 1966 SNCC embraced the philosophy of Black Power. This philosophy, influenced by the ideas of Malcolm X, called on blacks to form racially separate or independent organizations (which for SNCC meant the ouster of its white members) and to abandon the philosophy of nonviolence. Having embraced this Black Power philosophy, many in SNCC thought that Lewis was unsuited to lead the group in this new direction. In the initial balloting Lewis was easily reelected, but then, in a move that probably violated SNCC rules, the balloting was reopened, and Stokely Carmichael defeated Lewis. Because of his unwavering commitment to interracialism and nonviolence, Lewis was unsuited to lead SNCC in its new direction, but he was disappointed and angry about the manner in which his colleagues removed him.

After leaving SNCC, Lewis worked with several organizations involved with community organizing and civil rights. From 1970 to 1976 he was executive director of the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project (VEP). The VEP engaged in voter registration and education, a task that represented a blending of Lewis's past civil rights activism with his future political activism. In 1976, when President Jimmy Carter appointed Congressman Andrew Young of Atlanta as ambassador to the United Nations, Lewis sought to succeed him in the House of Representatives. However, he was defeated rather easily by Wyche Fowler, the white president of Atlanta's city council, although the district had a 65 percent black majority. President Carter then appointed Lewis associate director of ACTION, the umbrella agency with responsibilities for the Peace Corps and domestic volunteer service agencies. When Carter was defeated for reelection, Lewis returned to Atlanta, where in 1981 he was elected to the city council. In 1986 he was elected to the U.S. Congress.

Fowler retired from the House of Representatives in 1986 in order to run, successfully, for the U.S. Senate. Seven candidates sought to succeed him, including Lewis and Julian Bond, a state senator, a former SNCC worker, and a historically important figure in the civil rights movement. In the initial primary election Bond led Lewis 47 to 35 percent. But in the runoff Lewis defeated Bond 52 to 48 percent. Lewis won largely on the basis of the 90 percent support he received from the district's white voters, while Bond carried the black vote 60 to 40 percent. Since his election, Lewis, like most incumbents, has faced little or no opposition and has easily been reelected.

In some ways it was fitting that Lewis won through the support of a multiracial coalition, given his longtime commitment to forming interracial alliances. Because of his status as a genuine American hero, Lewis quickly earned the respect and admiration of his colleagues in the House of Representatives, black and white, liberal and conservative, and Democrats and Republicans. This support facilitated his efforts to build multiracial coalitions.

Lewis was initially assigned to two relatively minor committees, but in 1993 he was appointed to the Committee on Ways and Means, the oldest and most prestigious in the House. Lewis's appointment to this powerful committee (with jurisdiction over taxes, international trade, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and welfare programs) was indicative of the esteem held for him by his Democratic Party colleagues in the House. Further evidence of his stature among his colleagues was his selection as one of four Democratic chief deputy whips. A frequent and passionate participant in House debates on foreign and domestic issues, Lewis has devoted much of his time to persuading Congress to recognize the contributions of African Americans and the civil rights movement to U.S. history. He was active in the establishment of a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. and has spearheaded plans for the National Museum of African American History and culture, to be part of the Smithsonian Institution. With Lewis's help, the fifty-four-mile Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights Trail has been designated a National Historic Trail as well as one of only six “All American” roads. In 1999 he authored, with Michael D'Orso, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.

The memoir won the 1999 Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights Grand Prize Book Award. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, Lewis was re-elected to the House, usually unopposed by Republicans. While he remained active in Congress, both in the majority and in the minority, and was a passionate liberal voice for social justice and against American unilateralism in foreign affairs, in the 2000s Lewis came to be regarded as one of the last living exemplars of King’s “beloved community” of inter-racial liberalism. His endorsement of a presidential candidate was thus valuable in both the 2004 and 2008 Democratic primaries. In 2004, Lewis backed Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, against the candidacies of Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, and the Reverend Al Sharpton, the only African American in the field. Edwards defeated Kerry in the first test of southern opinion, South Carolina, with Sharpton receiving around one-quarter of the black vote. Georgia thus became a decisive test of whether Kerry could compete in the South. With Lewis’s endorsement and forceful campaigning, Kerry won 62% of the black vote and defeated Edwards, who soon dropped out of the race, leaving Kerry as the presumptive nominee.

In 2007 Lewis initially endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Senator from New York and former First Lady, in her campaign for the 2008 presidential nomination. After Barack Obama decisively won the Georgia primary in February 2008, with two-thirds of the overall vote and 88 percent of the African American vote, Lewis announced, however, that, as a “Superdelegate” to the Democratic National Convention, he would now vote for Obama, to reflect the views of his constituents. Critics pointed out that Lewis’s change of heart was related to his fear of a primary challenge. Lewis’s switch to Obama—and Obama’s continuing high support among black voters in the primaries that followed—persuaded several of his Congressional colleagues to follow his lead. Reflecting on Obama’s victory on the eve of his inauguration and on the day that would have been King’s 80th birthday, Lewis connected the historic result with the struggles that had made it possible, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma” (Remnick). In 2001 the John F. Kennedy Library honored Lewis with its “Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement.” Ten years later Barack Obama presented Lewis with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


    Further Reading

    • Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa. The Almanac of American Politics, 1988 (1988).
    • Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
    • Clay, Bill. Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1991 (1992)
    • Remnick, David. “The President’s Hero,”The New Yorker (2 February 1993) http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2009/02/02/090202taco_talk_remnick#ixzz1clDcT6Si.
    • Swain, Carol. Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress (1993)
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