Rep. John Lewis of Georgia’s 5th congressional district died last Friday at the age of 80. Here are nine things you should know about the courageous civil-rights leader.
1. Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, in Troy, Alabama, the third of ten children in a family of sharecroppers. The Lewis family eventually bought the farm (110 acres for $300—the equivalent in 2020 of $4,394.27), which included a three-room house without insulation, electricity, or running water. During the week John was required to leave school and help pick crops during harvest time. On Sundays he would go to church in the morning and listen to the local Gospel station on the radio in the evening.
2. While working on the farm, Lewis also helped with the chickens. “I preached to my birds just about every night,” Lewis writes in his autobiography, Walking with the Wind, “I would get them all into the henhouse, settle them onto their roosts, and then stand in the doorway and speak to them, reciting pieces of the Bible, the same verses I memorized for Sunday School. They would sit very quietly, some slightly moving their heads back and forth, mesmerized, I guess, by the sound of my voice. I could imagine that they were my congregation. And me, I was a preacher.” After watching John give a funeral service for his chickens, his family started calling him “Preacher.”
3. After graduating high school in 1957, Lewis attended American Baptist Theological (ATS) Seminary in Nashville, Tennesse,e to study for the ministry. During his freshman year he applied to transfer to the all-white college in his hometown, Troy State University. Although he says he didn’t “particularly want to go to Troy State,” he aspired to “become the first black student to step through those doors.” Although the Supreme Court had struck down racial segregation of public schools three years earlier in the case of Brown vs Board of Education, Troy State refused to accept black students. When he received no response from the university, he sent a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. describing his situation. In response, King sent Lewis a round-trip bus ticket to Montgomery, Alabama.
4. Lewis returned to ATS where he would finish his bachelor of arts in religion and philosophy. While in school he joined the Nashville Student Movement, an organization that initiated the Nashville sit-ins in 1960. Lewis and others took part in this nonviolent direct action campaign to end racial segregation at lunch counters in downtown Nashville. The campaign led to three months of beatings and arrests before negative national attention forced Nashville to desegregate the city’s lunch counters.
5. In 1961, Lewis became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, a group of seven black and six white civil-rights activists who travelled on a Greyhound bus from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans to test a Supreme Court ruling that made segregation in interstate transportation illegal. Lewis, only 21 years old at the time, was the first Freedom Rider to be assaulted. When Lewis and two others attempted to enter a whites-only waiting room in Rock Hill, South Carolina, they were brutally attacked and beaten. Less than two weeks later, he joined a ride bound for Jackson, Mississippi. In Montgomery, Alabama, the Freedom Riders were attacked by hundreds of white people and Lewis was left unconscious in a pool of his own blood outside the Greyhound Bus Terminal. “If there was anything I learned on that long, bloody bus trip of 1961,” he wrote in his autobiography, “it was this—that we were in for a long, bloody fight here in the American South. And I intended to stay in the middle of it.” During this period, Lewis spent numerous days and nights in county jails and 31 days in Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary.
6. Two years later, Lewis was elected to take over the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil-rights group he helped form to give younger African Americans more of a voice in the civil-rights movement. During his tenure as chairman, Lewis helped to launch Freedom Schools (temporary, alternative, and free schools for black youth), and the Mississippi Freedom Summer (a campaign to register black voters across the South and educate college students about the plight of black American life in the South). Lewis was also named one of the “Big Six” civil-rights leaders who organized the March on Washington, the occasion of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. At 23, Lewis was the youngest speaker at the event. “We are tired,” Lewis said in his speech. “We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.”
7. In 1965, Lewis joined MLK and other leaders in organizing a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. On Sunday, March 7, Lewis and Hosea Williams led more than 500 marchers down Highway 80. When the civil rights marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by a line of 150 Alabama state troopers, sheriff ’s deputies, and a deputized posse of white men. The police gave the marchers a two-minute warning to disperse, but after a little more than a minute the troops advanced wielding clubs, bullwhips, and tear gas. Lewis, who suffered a skull fracture from the incident, was one of 58 people treated for injuries at the local hospital. The day is remembered in history as “Bloody Sunday.” The images of brutality were caught on television and shocked the nation. In response, President Johnson promised to send the Voting Rights Act to Congress.
8. From the late 1960 to the early 1980s, Lewis would serve in various roles in the government, including stints as associate director of ACTION under President Carter and as a council member on the Atlanta City Council. Lewis made two unsuccessful bids for Congress before getting elected in 1986. He served for 17 terms, from 1987 until his death. In 2011, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, who addressed Lewis as the “conscience of the United States Congress” for his courage and unwavering commitment to justice.
9. In 1988, a year after he was sworn into Congress, Lewis introduced a bill to create a national African American museum in Washington. He continued to introduce the bill 15 times, but each time it was blocked (often by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms). In 2002, Lewis gained bipartisan support for the measure. In 2003 President George W. Bush signed the bill to establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 across the street from the Washington Monument.