#RespectYourElders: John Lewis was an American politician and Civil Rights icon who served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia from 1987 until his recent passing at 80. He was often called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress.”
Lewis was born the son of sharecroppers in 1940 in Troy, Alabama. He attended segregated schools and even when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregating schools in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, it didn’t change his circumstances in the South. Lewis first heard Martin Luther King. Jr. on the radio when he was 15, and closely followed the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At 17, he met Rosa Parks, and, one year later, he met Dr. King.
Lewis attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville and was ordained as a Baptist minister. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University. During these years, he organized and participated in many boycotts and nonviolent protests, which led to several arrests.
“When I was growing up, my mother and father and family members said, ‘Don’t get in trouble. Don’t get in the way.’ I got in trouble. I got in the way. It was necessary trouble.” Lewis once said.
In 1961, Lewis and 12 other white and Black civil rights activists came together to challenge the segregated facilities they experienced in the South. The Freedom Riders took bus rides through Jim Crow South and attempted to use “white-only” restrooms, lunch counters and waiting rooms. These Freedom Riders were beaten, harassed and arrested along their routes — drawing international attention to the civil rights movement.
Two years later, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) elected Lewis to the chairman. During this time, SNCC opened Freedom Schools, launched the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and Lewis organized, spoke and marched on behalf of the organization during the historic 250,000-person March on Washington where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lewis is arguably most well known for his march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in response to state troopers fatally shooting Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old Black man who was trying to protect his mother from police brutality. Lewis and 600 protestors marched across the bridge before being stopped by state troopers demanding they turn back. He and many others were attacked by police, causing a national uproar. In response to the gruesome scene and political pressure, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
These are just a few of the notable stories of Lewis during the civil rights movement. He also served as an associate director at the Field Foundation and director of the Voter Education Project (VEP) where he helped add nearly four million minorities to the voter roll. In 1986, he was elected to Congress in Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District.
Lewis served in Congress up until his recent passing on July, 17, 2020. He was laid to rest 11 days later in the U.S. Capitol where thousands came to pay their respect. A double rainbow appeared over the Capitol that day as Lewis lied in state.