Lewis first ran for elective office in 1977, when a vacancy occurred in Georgia’s 5th District. A special election was called after President Jimmy Carter appointed incumbent Congressman Andrew Young to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Lewis lost the race to Atlanta City Councilman and future Senator Wyche Fowler.
In 1986, when Fowler ran for the United States Senate, Lewis defeated fellow civil rights leader Julian Bond in the Democratic primary to succeed Fowler in the 5th District. This win was tantamount to election in the heavily Democratic, majority-black 5th District. Lewis was the second African-American to represent Georgia in Congress since Reconstruction. Young was the first. Lewis has been re-elected ten times without serious opposition, often with over 70 percent of the vote.
Lewis was present on the stage during the inauguration of Barack Obama, as the only living speaker from the rally at the March on Washington. Obama signed a commemorative photograph for Lewis with the words, “Because of you, John. Barack Obama."