John Lewis: John Lewis was an American civil rights leader and politician best known for his chairmanship of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and for leading the march that was halted by police violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, a landmark event in the history of the civil rights movement that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
As a teenager, Lewis was inspired by the likes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Lewis, was educated in Nashville at the American Baptist Theological Institute and Fisk University. There Lewis undertook the study of nonviolent protest and became involved in sit-ins at lunch counters and other segregated public places. In 1961, while participating in the Freedom Rides that challenged the segregation of Southern interstate bus terminals.
In 1963 he was elected as the chairman of SNCC, a position he held until 1966. Also in 1963 Lewis played a key role in the historic March on Washington. Indeed, by that point, Lewis, though still in his early 20s, had already become such a prominent figure that he was considered one of the civil rights movement’s “Big Six” leaders, along with King, James Farmer, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young. In 1964 Lewis headed the SNCC’s efforts to register African American voters and organize communities Mississippi during the Freedom Summer project.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis played a pivotal role in one the most important events in the history of the American civil rights movement when he and King and lieutenant Hosea Williams led some 600 peaceful demonstrators on a march in support of voting rights that departed from Selma, with the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, as its destination. The resulting heightened awareness would contribute mightily to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by Johnson on August 6, 1965.
In addition to numerous other honors he received, Lewis was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize in 1975, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2001, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Spingarn Medal in 2002. In 2011 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His memoirs are Walking with the Wind (1998; co-written with Michael D’Orso) and the March trilogy (2013, 2015, and 2016; all co-written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell), a graphic novel series for young adults that was based on Lewis’s experiences in the civil rights movement. The final installment in the series received numerous honors, including the National Book Award (2016), and Lewis and Aydin shared a Coretta Scott King Book Award (2017). The documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020) chronicles his life and career.
In July 2020, after a battle with pancreatic cancer, Lewis died. Called the “conscience of Congress,” he became the first African American lawmaker to lie in state in the rotunda of the U.S. capitol.
Lewis was eulogized by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, pioneer of nonviolent resistance James Lawson, and three former U.S. presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Obama, for whom Lewis was an inspiration and a hero, called Lewis a man of “unbreakable perseverance” and said that he embodied “that most American of ideas— that idea that any of us ordinary people, without rank or wealth or title or fame, can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals.”
At Lewis’s request, on the day of his funeral, The New York Times published a valedictory essay in which Lewis lauded the Black Lives Matter movement and provided marching orders for future activists, saying in part:
Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.