- NAME: John Lewis
- OCCUPATION: Civil Rights Activist, U.S. Representative
- BIRTH DATE: February 21, 1940 (Age: 73)
- Did You Know?: During the civil rights struggle, Lewis was arrested approximately 40 times.
- Did You Know?: Lewis was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963.
- PLACE OF BIRTH: Near Troy, Alabama
- Full Name: John Robert Lewis
- AKA: John Lewis
- ZODIAC SIGN: Pisces
Best Known For
One of the "Big Six" leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, John Lewis has continued to fight for people's rights since joining Congress in 1987.
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Born near Troy, Alabama, on February 21, 1940, John Lewis grew up in an era of segregation. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., he joined the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Lewis was a Freedom Rider, spoke at 1963's March on Washington and led the demonstration that became known as "Bloody Sunday." He was elected to Congress in 1986 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
"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."
"Second-class citizenship is not citizenship at all."
"Courage is a reflection of the heart—it is a reflection of something deep within the man or woman or even a child who must resist and must defy an authority that is morally wrong. Courage makes us march on despite fear and doubt on the road toward justice. Courage is not heroic but as necessary as birds need wings to fly. Courage is not rooted in reason but rather Courage comes from a divine purpose to make things right."
"People around the world will not be inspired by our missiles and our guns; they will be inspired by our ideas."
"I have not accomplished everything I wanted to. I would like to, before I leave this little piece of real estate, do a little more for the cause of peace. To end the violence here at home and violence abroad. We spend so much of our resources killing each other."
"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."
"When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, he helped free and liberate all of us."
"I disagree with the court that the history of discrimination is somehow irrelevant today. The record clearly demonstrates numerous attempts to impede voting rights still exist, and it does not matter that those attempts are not as 'pervasive, widespread or rampant' as they were in 1965. One instance of discrimination is too much in a democracy."
"Imagine that. I was beaten near to death at the Rock Hill Greyhound bus terminal during the Freedom Rides in 1961. Now the police chief is black."
"We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about. In the struggle, we must seek more than civil rights; we must work for the community of love, peace and true brotherhood. Our minds, souls and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all people."
"I believe in nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living. I believe that this idea is one of those immutable principles that is nonnegotiable if you're going to create a world community at peace with itself."
"I know maybe it won't happen in my lifetime, but I know somehow in some way we're going to create the Beloved Community, that we're going to create a national community, a world community that is at peace."
"When we were organizing voter-registration drives, going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought—I never dreamed—of the possibility that an African American would one day be elected president of the United States."
John Robert Lewis was born outside of Troy, Alabama, on February 21, 1940. Lewis had a happy childhood—though he needed to work hard to assist his sharecropper parents—but he chafed against the unfairness of segregation. He was particularly disappointed when the Supreme Court ruling in 1954's Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka didn't affect his school life. However, hearing Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons and news of the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott inspired Lewis to act for the changes he wanted to see.
In 1957, John Lewis left Alabama to attend the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. There, he learned about nonviolent protest and helped to organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. He was arrested during these demonstrations, which upset his mother, but Lewis was committed to the Civil Rights Movement and went on to participate in the Freedom Rides of 1961. Freedom Riders challenged the segregated facilities they encountered at interstate bus terminals in the South, which had been deemed illegal by the Supreme Court. It was dangerous work that resulted in arrests and beatings for many involved, including Lewis.
In 1963, Lewis became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That same year, as one of the "Big Six" leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, he helped plan the March on Washington. Lewis—the youngest speaker at the event—had to alter his speech in order to please other organizers, but still delivered a powerful oration that declared, "We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about."
After the March on Washington, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act became law. However, this did not make it easier for African Americans to vote in the South. To bring attention to this struggle, Lewis and Hosea Williams led a march from Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers were attacked by state troopers. Lewis was severely beaten once more, this time suffering a fractured skull. The violent attacks were recorded and disseminated throughout the country, and the images proved too powerful to ignore. "Bloody Sunday," as the day was labeled, sped up the passage of 1965's Voting Rights Act.
Lewis left the SNCC in 1966. Though devastated by the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy in 1968, Lewis continued his work to enfranchise minorities. In 1970, he became director of the Voter Education Project.
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