It was Lewis’ coming out on the national stage, but at 23, he was already one of the movement’s most decorated members and had achieved a rare three-level status.
On one level were King’s contemporaries who ran organizations like the SCLC and had their own unique goals and followings: Randolph, James Farmer of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE); Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and Whitney Young of the National Urban League
Then there were King’s lieutenants who worked directly strategizing with him at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, like Andrew Young, Joseph Lowery and Hosea Williams.
Finally, there were the foot soldiers like James Orange and C.T. Vivian – often on the front lines singing, taking the blows, getting tear-gassed and bombed and spending long, cold nights in jail.
John Lewis belonged among all three.
He was the youngest and last surviving member of the so-called Big Six as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
He became a close King ally as early as 1957 when he wrote the civil rights leader a letter asking him for help in suing Troy State University for refusing to admit him into the all-white school.
Lewis was also on the front lines as one of the early Freedom Riders. As a member, he was dragged off burning buses and beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan. And that was years before he and Hosea Williams stood after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge facing what he described as a “sea” of blue-clad Alabama State troopers who beat and forced them back.
Those experiences made Lewis his own man and helped him set his own path toward history and the challenges that played out throughout his long life.
“Congressman John Lewis is a symbol of what the United States of America can be if it lived up to its principles,” said civil rights historian and Georgia State University professor Maurice Hobson. “He represents civil and human rights for all; non-violent direct action; humility; and has seamlessly moved from agency and activism to governance — a transition that most cannot make. He has championed the ideals of American democracy.”
“My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution.” Lewis’ March on Washington speech.
It began for him in Nashville as a leader of the student civil rights movement.
The son of a sharecropper, John Robert Lewis was born outside of Troy, Alabama, and wanted to be a minister. He would read his grandfather’s newspaper daily about what Rosa Parks and a young Martin Luther King Jr. were doing with the bus boycott in Montgomery.
“The action of Rosa Parks and the words of Dr. King inspired me,” Lewis wrote in his autobiography “Walking with the Wind.” “And I kept saying to myself, ‘If something can happen like this in Montgomery, why can’t we change Troy?’”
In 1957, at the age of 17, he left for ministerial training at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee.
He avoided the temptation of chasing girls at the area’s other Black colleges with his first friend and hall-mate James Bevel, who also became active in the civil rights movement, and he spent most of his time working for his tuition, studying and following King, to the point where a classmate told him, “John, you gotta stop preaching the gospel of Martin Luther King and start preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
He became a leader in the Nashville Student Movement and began rising through the ranks of the movement. He put his life on the line multiple times, participating in the Freedom Rides on interstate buses, and in multiple peaceful marches and demonstrations. He was beaten at a South Carolina bus station, and was riding in a bus that was fire-bombed in Alabama.
“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. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.” Lewis’ March on Washington speech.
A Freedom Rider bus went up in flames in May 1961 when a fire bomb was tossed through a window near Anniston, Ala. The bus, which was testing bus station segregation in the south, had stopped because of a flat tire. Passengers escaped without serious injury.(AP Photo)
“This was America in 1961,” Lewis wrote. “Those were American men who had clutched pipes and clubs and bricks as they surrounded the bus when it had pulled into the Anniston terminal that day.”
He was arrested more than 40 times through the years for his activism.
On March 7, 1965, King chose him and Hosea Williams to lead more than 600 marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery.
On the day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday,” Alabama State Troopers met the marchers and ordered them to disperse. As Lewis and the others stopped to pray, the police discharged tear gas, and troopers on horses and foot charged the demonstrators, beating them with nightsticks. Images of Lewis, wearing a tan trench coat and backpack, being beaten and trampled, became iconic. A trooper fractured his skull, and he later said he thought he was going to die there.
Before going to the hospital, his hair matted with blood, Lewis appealed to President Johnson, who had risen from vice president after Kennedy’s assassination, to intervene, saying if Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and the Congo, he can send them to Selma. It was a turning point.
On March 15, Johnson addressed a televised joint session of Congress and called on lawmakers to enact expansive voting rights legislation. He concluded with the words “we shall overcome,” the title of a song adopted by the civil rights movement.
Two days later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced in Congress while civil rights leaders, this time under the protection of federal troops, led a march of 25,000 people from Selma to Montgomery.
On Aug. 6, 1965, five months after Bloody Sunday, in the same room where Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Lewis watched Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.
A pen that Johnson signed the bill with is framed on the wall of Lewis’ Atlanta home.
Lewis continued working in community and voter organization and registration. In 1970, Lewis became the director of the Voter Education Project, helping register millions of minority voters.
By 1981, he was an Atlanta councilman. By 1986, he was a member of the United States House of Representatives, where he would continue to fight for civil rights in the form of stamping out apartheid in South Africa, and fighting for immigration reform, gay rights and Black Lives Matter.
When John Lewis died July 18, he had been the last living speaker remaining from the March on Washington and had earned the unofficial title as the conscience of the Congress.