Happy Throwback Thursday, friends! Almost three weeks ago, America and the Civil Rights Movement lost a great man, Congressman John Lewis. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Black or White, a Democrat or a Republican, or even an American. If you’re a member of the Human race, you can appreciate what a remarkable journey this man had. Not to discount his long political career, for time’s sake, today we’re just going to focus on his personal life and his impact in the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1940, John Robert Lewis was born in Alabama, the third of ten children of Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis. His parents were sharecroppers and lived on a farm with no electricity or plumbing.
From a young age, John aspired to be a preacher. By age five, he was preaching sermons to his family’s chickens. By the time he was six years old, John had only encountered two white people in his life. It wasn’t until he was older and he began taking trips into town with his family that he experienced the burning sting of racism.
John had relatives who lived up North, and correspondence with them showed him how different things were there than where he lived in the South. The North had integrated transportation systems, schools, colleges, and even businesses. At 11 years old, John’s uncle took him on a trip to Buffalo, New York, which made John even more acutely aware of Alabama’s acute segregation laws.
John was 15 the first time he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio. He paid attention to what the charismatic King had to say, and later that year, John closely followed the Montgomery bus boycott. During that same year, John preached his first public sermon.
Two years later at age 17, John met Rosa Parks. That same year, 1957, he became the first member of his family to graduate from high school. He met Dr. King the following year.
Around this same time, John applied for admission to Troy University in Alabama, but he was denied – because he was Black. That rejection inspired him to write a letter to Dr. King for suggestions on what he might do. Dr. King invited john to come meet with him, and referred to him as “the boy from Troy.” At their meeting, Dr. King laid out all the pros and cons of suing Troy University for discrimination, with the cons being that doing so could endanger John’s family. John discussed the matter with his parents then decided to proceed with his education at a small, historically Black college in Tennessee.
A year later, John became involved in the workshops on nonviolence directed by the Reverend James Lawson, under the sponsorship of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference. Inspired by Dr. King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, John actively participated in the movement to secure civil rights for people of color.
Twice in late 1959, John joined other students in unsuccessful attempts to desegregate Nashville’s lunch counters. This led to Nashville’s first full-scale sit-in in February of the following year. One week after Whites verbally tormented the Black students at Nashville’s Walgreen’s lunch counter, John formulated the Rules of Conduct that became the Code of Behavior for protest movements throughout the South, with him stressing that violence on behalf of the protestors was not the way to get changes made.
Along with other Nashville students, John also demonstrated against the city’s segregated movie theaters, and he refused to post bail when he was arrested. By April of 1960, he became a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Raleigh, North Carolina.
In 1961, John became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, a group of seven Whites and six Blacks who planned to ride a bus from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans in an integrated fashion. At the time, several southern states enforced laws prohibiting Black and White riders from sitting next to each other on public transportation. In the South, John and other nonviolent Freedom Riders were beaten by angry mobs and arrested. In Rock Hill, South Carolina, John tried to enter a whites-only waiting room, and as a result, two white men attacked him. However, two weeks later, he joined a Freedom Ride headed for Jackson, Mississippi. He later said, “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.”
John later recounted the amount of violence he and the 12 other original Freedom Riders endured stating that in Birmingham, they were beaten with baseball bats, chains, lead pipes, and stones, then were arrested by police who led them across the border into Tennessee and let them go. They reorganized and rode to Montgomery, where they were met with more violence, and John was hit in the head with a wooden crate. “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious,” he said.
[In February 2009, 48 years after he was battered and left for dead at the Montgomery Greyhound station, John Lewis received a nationally televised apology from a white southerner and former Klansman, Elwin Wilson.]
John graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville in 1961 and was ordained as a Baptist minister. He then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University in 1963 where he was a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.
On August 28, 1963, John was named one of the “Big Six” leaders who organized and spoke at the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King’s infamous “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered. The youngest organizer there, John delivered one of the most stinging declamations of the day when he said, “By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of God and democracy.”
In 1964, John coordinated the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s “Mississippi Freedom Summer” campaign to register black voters across the South and alert college students around the country to the dangers of African-American life in the South. He traveled the United States, encouraging students to spend their summer break trying to help people vote in Mississippi, then the most recalcitrant state in the nation.
However, it wasn’t until March 7, 1965 – a day that would later be known as “Bloody Sunday” – when John became nationally recognized during his prominent role in the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march. John and another fellow activist, Hosea Williams, led over 600 protest marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. At the end of the bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers who ordered the group to disperse immediately. When the protesters stopped to pray, the police fired tear gas into the crowd and horse-mounted troopers charged the demonstrators, beating them with nightsticks. Though John’s skull was fractured, he escaped across the bridge to Brown Chapel, a church in Selma that served as the movement’s headquarters. Every day for the remainder of his life, he was forced to look at the scars left on his head from that single Bloody Sunday.
All told, John was beaten unconscious four times and arrested at least forty times throughout the 1960s decade for his peaceful protests against segregation and systemic racism.
In the late 60s, John Lewis met Lillian Miles at a New Year’s Eve party and they were married in 1968. They had one son, John-Miles Lewis, and remained married until Lillian’s death on December 31, 2012, 45 years to the date of their meeting.
On December 29, 2019, John announced that he had been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. He said, “I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.” He valiantly fought the disease until July 17, 2020, when he died at the age of 80 in Atlanta, Georgia. May we never forget him or his legacy.