To opt out of these daily Black History emails from the Voting Rights Alliance, please reply back to this email. 

Congressman John Lewis (1940-present)

In honor of Black History Month, all month long we will be sharing the legacies and stories of the heroes, sheroes, and events in the fight for Black suffrage on social media under the hashtag #VRABlackHistory. Follow us on Twitter (@VRAmatters) to share your own facts.

Note from the author: This article is comprised of quotes from many different articles in order to provide a more comprehensive view of the life and legacy of Congressman John Lewis' continued fight for African-American suffrage. All sources are linked in green throughout the article.

Today we honor Congressman John Lewis, who has fought for equality and voting rights his entire life.  Congressman John Lewis has put his heart, soul, skin, blood, and tears into the fight for African-American suffrage. Congressman John Lewis was a leading participant in nearly all of the pivotal events of the civil rights movement”. Congressman Lewis:

  • participated in the 1960 Nashville sit-ins; 

  • helped form in 1960 and was chairman of from 1963-1966 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; 

  • participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides; 

  • helped organize registration drives through the SNCC starting in 1962; 

  • was an architect of and youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom;

  • helped lead the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Marches and was one of the seventeen people hospitalized on Bloody Sunday; 

  • was head of the Voter Education Project from 1970-1977; 

  • was elected to his first official government office as an Atlanta City Council member in 1981; and, 

  • has served thirteen consecutive terms as Congressman of Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987, where he still advocates regularly for voting rights for all.

Early Activism

“John Robert Lewis was born outside of Troy, Alabama, on February 21, 1940.” Lewis grew up a hundred miles southeast of Selma, in the rural Alabama Black Belt near Troy. He was the third of ten kids; his parents farmed cotton, corn and peanuts. Their farmhouse had no electricity, running water or insulation.”

Lewis “attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. “ “He was particularly disappointed when the Supreme Court ruling in 1954's Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka didn't affect his school life.” However,[h]is life changed when, at 15, he heard about the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955 and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. (who quickly became his idol) preaching on the radio.” “…[H]earing Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons and news of the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott inspired Lewis to act for the changes he wanted to see.” "[In a 2016 speech] John Lewis recounted that as a kid growing up in the segregated South, his family dissuaded him from getting involved.

'I saw those signs that said, ‘White Men, Colored Men, White Women, Colored Women,’ and I would come home and ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, ‘Why?’ And they would say, 'Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble,’ Lewis recalled. 'But one day in the 10th grade, I heard of Rosa Parks. I heard the words of Martin Luther King on the radio. The action of Rosa Parks, the words of Martin Luther King inspired me to find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble, what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.'"

“In 1957, John Lewis left Alabama to attend the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee.” He graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville and then received a bachelor's degree in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University.” As a student at Fisk University, John Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee.” “He was arrested during these demonstrations, which upset his mother, but Lewis was committed to the Civil Rights Movement...”

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

John Lewis helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). “The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in April 1960, by young people who had emerged as leaders of the sit-in protest movement initiated on February 1 of that year by four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina…The idea for a locally based, student-run organization was conceived when Ella Baker, a veteran civil rights organizer and [a Southern Christian Leadership Conference]  official, invited black college students who had participated in the early 1960 sit-ins to an April 1960 gathering at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Baker encouraged the more than 200 student attendees to remain autonomous, rather than affiliate with SCLC or any of the other existing civil rights groups…SNCC’s emergence as a force in the southern civil rights movement came largely through the involvement of students in the 1961 Freedom Rides…”

The Freedom Rides

“[Freedom] Riders challenged the segregated facilities they encountered at interstate bus terminals in the South, which had been deemed illegal by the Supreme Court in a 1960 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in interstate travel facilities unconstitutional’.” The Congress of Racial Equality initially sponsored the Freedom Rides that began in May 1961, but segregationists viciously attacked riders traveling through Alabama. Students from Nashville, under the leadership of Diane Nash, resolved to finish the rides. Once the new group of freedom riders demonstrated their determination to continue the rides into Mississippi, other students joined the movement.”

In 1961, Lewis joined SNCC in the Freedom Rides.” It was dangerous work that resulted in arrests and beatings for many involved, including Lewis.” Lewis risked his life on those Rides many times by simply sitting in seats reserved for white patrons.”  Lewis and others received death threats and were severely beaten by angry mobs.”

On May 20, 1961, Lewis and two dozen Freedom Riders traveling through the South to desegregate interstate bus travel were assaulted by a frenzied mob at the Greyhound station in Montgomery. Lewis was struck over the head with a Coca-Cola crate and left lying unconscious in a pool of blood. The Freedom Riders sought refuge at the First Baptist Church, disguising themselves as members of the choir to avoid police scrutiny. Three thousand white supremacists surrounded the church the next night and hurled Molotov cocktails through the stained-glass windows. “That night was unbelievable,” Lewis recalls. “I thought some of us would die.” After tortured deliberation, President John Kennedy sent in federal marshals to escort the Freedom Riders to safety.”

SNCC's Voter Registration Drives 

By the time the Interstate Commerce Commission began enforcing the ruling mandating equal treatment in interstate travel in November 1961, SNCC was immersed in voter registration efforts in McComb, Mississippi, and a desegregation campaign in Albany, Georgia, known as the Albany Movement.” “Members of [SNCC] first decided to organize in Selma in 1962. Then, it was almost impossible for people of color to register and vote in Alabama. Even though Selma was the Dallas County seat, only 2.1% of voting age African Americans were registered to vote. [SNCC] could attempt to register at the county courthouse only on the first and third Mondays of each month. [Voters wishing to register] had to pass a so-called literacy test, pay a poll tax, and interpret certain sections of the Alabama state constitution. Bernard LaFayette was the first among SNCC staff to lead organizing efforts there, and during one voter registration drive, he was attacked and beaten.”

“In 1963, when Chuck McDew stepped down as SNCC chairman, Lewis was quickly elected to take over. Lewis' experience at that point was already widely respected--he had been arrested 24 times as a result of his activism.” At the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, John Lewis, “at the age of 23” and representing SNCC, was not only a keynote speaker, but was also the “youngest speaker at the event”, and helped plan the march. “[In his speech at the march] [h]e intended to criticize John F. Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill as ‘too little, and too late,’ and to refer to the movement as ‘a serious revolution’. Lewis softened the tone of the delivered speech to appease A. Philip Randolph and other march organizers, but, remained adamant that SNCC had ‘great reservations’ regarding Kennedy’s proposed civil right legislation. He warned his audience: ‘We want our freedom and we want it now’.” (citations omitted)

“After the March on Washington, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act became law. However, this did not make it easier for African Americans to vote in the South.” In 1964, John Lewis coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer.”  SNCC supported the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in an effort to challenge the legitimacy of the state’s all-white Democratic Party.”

SNCC had been trying to register voters in Selma since 1963. They hadn’t gotten very far. At the time of the march, only 383 of the 15,000 black residents in Selma’s Dallas County were registered to vote. At 25, Lewis had already been arrested twenty times by white segregationists and badly beaten during Freedom Rides in South Carolina and Montgomery.” The movement came to a head in the early part of 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was invited to Selma. He came the first week in January to speak at a mass meeting. Several hundred people came out to the rally…A few weeks later, police ambushed a nighttime march to the courthouse in Marion, Alabama. The streetlights were shot out and the beating began. A young Vietnam War veteran named Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot while trying to protect his mother. He died a few days later. Because of what happened to him, a decision was made to march from Selma to Montgomery.”

“SNCC decided not to participate in the march because they felt Dr. King's presence might overshadow the years of organizing and protest they had invested in voting rights in Selma. But [Lewis] was determined to march and [he] told [SNCC], ‘If the people want to march, I'm going to march with them.’ [SNCC] said [that he] could march as an individual, but not as the chairman of SNCC. That was fine with [him]."

Bloody Sunday

“SNCC decided not to participate in the march because they felt Dr. King's presence might overshadow the years of organizing and protest they had invested in voting rights in Selma. But [Lewis] was determined to march and [he] told [SNCC], ‘If the people want to march, I'm going to march with them.’ [SNCC] said [that he] could march as an individual, but not as the chairman of SNCC. That was fine with [him]. On March 6, several of [SNCC’s members] drove from SNCC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, to Selma, carrying [their] sleeping bags. [They] arrived at the SNCC Freedom House in Selma where we could stay and sleep.

Meanwhile, at Dr. King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Andy Young, James Bevel, and Hosea Williams drew straws to determine who would represent the organization in the march. The one who drew the shortest straw would be the leader. Hosea pulled the shortest one, so he led the march on behalf of SCLC. The leaders of SCLC asked [Lewis] to lead with Hosea.”

On March 7, 1965, John Lewis threw an apple, an orange, a toothbrush, some toothpaste and two books into his backpack, and prepared to lead a fifty-four-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.” On an overcast Sunday afternoon, Lewis and Hosea Williams, a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr., led some 600 local residents marching in two single-file lines. The streets of downtown Selma were eerily quiet… Lewis thought he would be arrested, but he had no idea that the ensuing events would dramatically alter the arc of American history. 

As they crossed the Alabama River on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, Alabama state troopers descended on the marchers with batons and bullwhips; some demonstrators were trampled by policemen on horseback, and the air was choked with tear gas. Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull from a clubbing, thought he was going to die. That evening, the prime-time network news played extensive footage of what came to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday.”

The Selma-to-Montgomery March and the Voting Rights Act

Because of Bloody Sunday, Dr. King made an appeal for all religious leaders to come to Selma to participate in a march. Movement lawyers of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund went to court, assisted by Assistant Attorney General John Doar. We appeared before federal judge Frank M. Johnson in Alabama and got a federal order to march from Selma to Montgomery.

On March 15th, only seven days after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson spoke to Congress and delivered one of the most meaningful and powerful speeches any modern president has made on civil and voting rights. In that speech he used the theme song of the movement, saying, ‘And we shall overcome.’

Finally, on March 21, Dr. King led a march of thousands from Selma to Montgomery. Since Governor George Wallace could not assure [their] protection, President Johnson commanded the National Guard to ensure [their] safety on the road. [They] arrived in Montgomery on March 25.

"Eight days [after Bloody Sunday], President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act before a joint session of Congress.  ‘It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country,’ Johnson said. On August 6, 1965, a hundred years after the end of the Civil War, the VRA became law.”

John Lewis' Activism & Public Service post-Voting Rights Act

Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. After leaving SNCC in 1966, he continued his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement as Associate Director of the Field Foundation and his participation in the Southern Regional Council's voter registration programs.” “

Lewis became head of the Voter Education Project [VEP] in 1970, which took the lead in registering black voters in the South after the VRA’s passage. The VEP registered 2 million voters from 1970 to 1977, including Lewis’s mother and father. The group distributed posters that read: ‘Hands that pick [sic] cotton…can now pick our elected officials.’” (emphasis added) Under his leadership, the VEP transformed the nation's political climate by adding nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls.” In 1977, John Lewis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency.”

In 1981, Lewis was elected to his first official government office as an Atlanta City Council member.” While serving on the Council, he was an advocate for ethics in government and neighborhood preservation.” “He was elected to Congress in November 1986 and has served as U.S. Representative of Georgia's Fifth Congressional District since then. He is Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House, a member of the House Ways & Means Committee, a member of its Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, and Ranking Member of its Subcommittee on Oversight.”

Lewis…viewed Obama’s election as a culmination of what he and so many others had put their lives on the line for. ‘Because of what you did, Barack Obama is the president of the United States,’ Lewis said in Selma following Obama’s 2008 victory, on the forty-fourth anniversary of Bloody Sunday.  

Lewis knew the president would be attacked because of his race, but the full-scale assault on voting rights that followed the 2010 midterm elections caught him and other movement veterans off-guard.”

“In July 2011, when few were paying attention to the issue, Lewis delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor about the right to vote. ‘Voting rights are under attack in America,’ Lewis told the nearly empty chamber in his deep baritone. ‘There’s a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.’ He called voter-ID laws a poll tax—a year before Attorney General Holder would make the same comparison—and recalled how, before passage of the VRA, blacks who attempted to register in the South were required to guess the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of jellybeans in a jar. ‘We must not step backward to another dark period in our history,’ Lewis warned. ‘The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society.’ To combat voter suppression, Lewis sponsored the Voter Empowerment Act, which would add millions of voters to the rolls and increase turnout by modernizing registration, mandating early voting and adopting Election Day registration.”  

[In 2012], Lewis found out that his great-great-grandfather had registered and voted after becoming an emancipated slave following the Civil War, during Reconstruction—something that Lewis could not do until 100 years later, after the passage of the VRA. He wept when he heard the news. It underscored how delicate the right to vote has been throughout American history. If the Court [had upheld] Section 5, as it [had] in [the] four prior opinions, Lewis’s legacy [would have been] cemented…[Since] the Court eviscerate[d] it, Lewis’s voice [is] needed as never before.” 

“On the last night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which took place just twenty-five miles from where Lewis was beaten as a Freedom Rider in Rock Hill, South Carolina, he implored the faithful to march to the polls like never, ever before. By that time, civil rights activists, the Obama administration and the judiciary had heeded his warning on voting rights, as ten major restrictive laws were blocked in court under the VRA and federal and state protections. ‘The election of 2012,’ Lewis said on MSNBC, ‘dramatized…the need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.’… The successful resistance to voter suppression may be the most important story of the 2012 election. Compared with 2008, 1.7 million more blacks, 1.4 million more Hispanics and 550,000 more Asians went to the polls, versus 2 million fewer whites. The turnout rate among black voters exceeded that of whites for the first time on record, according to the Census Bureau. While the turnout rate fell among nearly every demographic group, the largest increase came from blacks 65 and over. Those, like Lewis, who had lived through the days when merely trying to register could get you killed were the people most determined to defend their rights last year."


Congressman John Lewis' mark on the Civil Rights Movement is cemented- through his determination, sheer will, blood, skin, sweat, and tears. Sometimes going against the wishes of those he was closest to, like his parents or his organization, SNCC, Lewis has fulfilled Dr. King's call to the Civil Rights Movement from that radio broadcast he heard in tenth grade. He proves that you are never too young or too old to get involved and make a difference. His passion and being has been about fighting for equality so that the disenfranchised can realize their own political power. He has made it possible for him to have been elected to Congress thirteen times; for Congressman Marc Veasey to have been elected and hold Congressional office; and, for Barack Obama to have been elected as the first African-American President of the United States in 2008.

Because of Congressman John Lewis' efforts to resist voter suppression in all the subtle and overt forms it has taken and continues to take, President Barack Obama was able to be re-elected in 2012, and though their ancestors hands picked cotton; African-Americans can now pick their elected officials.
Fun Facts:
  • "March 2 [2013], when Lewis returned to First Baptist Church [the same place where him and the Freedom Riders has sought refuge back in 1961 when 3,000 White Supremacists had surrounded the church] with 200 guests, Chief Kevin Murphy, head of the Montgomery Police Department, unexpectedly apologized to him. ‘We enforced unjust laws,’ Murphy said. It was the first apology Lewis had ever received from a law enforcement official, after forty arrests and countless near-death experiences. They embraced, as the congregation cheered and wept, and Murphy gave Lewis his badge. ‘Chief Murphy, my brother, 
I accept your apology,’ Lewis responded. ‘I don’t think I’m worthy of this.’ Then he joked, ‘Actually, do you think I could get another?’ Lewis kept the badge in his pocket for days. ‘I want to say to all of you here, it shows the power of love, the power of peace, the power of nonviolence,’ he said.  The Montgomery Advertiser featured Murphy’s apology on its front page.” (emphasis in original)

  • “Of the ten states where anti-black stereotypes are most common, based on data from the National Annenberg Election Survey, six in the South [were subjected] to Section 5 [of the Voting Rights Act of 1965]. Racially polarized voting and ‘explicit anti-black attitudes,’ according to an AP survey, have increased since 2008.”

  • “John Lewis is the co-author of the #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novel memoir trilogy MARCH, written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. The first volume, MARCH: Book One, received a 2014 American Library Association (ALA) Coretta Scott King Book Award Author Honor, an ALA Notable Children's Book designation, was named one of YALSA's 2014 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens, and became the first graphic novel ever to receive a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.”

  • “[Congressman John Lewis] has been awarded over 50 honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities throughout the United States, including Harvard University, Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania,  Princeton University, Duke University, Morehouse College, Clark-Atlanta University, Howard University, Brandeis University, Columbia University, Fisk University, and Troy State University.” 
  • “John Lewis is the recipient of numerous awards from eminent national and international institutions, including the highest civilian honor granted by President Barack Obama, the Medal of Freedom, the Lincoln Medal from the historic Ford’s Theatre, the Golden Plate Award given by the Academy of Excellence, the Preservation Hero award given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Capital Award of the National Council of La Raza,  the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, the President’s Medal of Georgetown University, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the National Education Association Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award, and the only John F. Kennedy ‘Profile in Courage Award’ for Lifetime Achievement ever granted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. “

Recommended Reading:  
Click on the video below to watch as Congressman John Lewis discusses race relations and voting rights with New York Times reporter Sheryl Stolberg in a 2013 interview.
This article is written by: Caitlyn Cobb. All sources are linked throughout the article in green. 

Did you miss any of the  #VRABlackHistory series articles?
Go to  to view them all!

Don't forget to tell your friends!