From an early age, John Lewis was committed to the goal of education for himself, and justice for his people. Inspired by the example of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Montgomery bus boycott, he corresponded with Dr. King and resolved to join the struggle for civil rights. After attending segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama, he graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee and completed a Bachelor's in Religion and Philosophy at Fisk University.
As a student he made a systematic study of the techniques and philosophy of nonviolence, and with his fellow students prepared thoroughly for their first actions. They began with sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Day after day, Lewis and his fellow students sat silently at lunch counters where they were harassed, spit upon, beaten and finally arrested and held in jail, but they persisted in the sit-ins. In 1961, Lewis joined fellow students on the Freedom Rides, challenging the segregation of interstate buses. In the Montgomery bus terminal he was again attacked by a mob and brutally beaten.
In 1964, Lewis coordinated SNCC's efforts for "Mississippi Freedom Summer," a campaign to register black voters across the South. The following year, Lewis led one of the most dramatic protests of the era. On March 7, 1965 -- a day that would become known as "Bloody Sunday" -- Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. At the end of the bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers, who ordered them to disperse. When the marchers stopped to pray, the police discharged tear gas and mounted troopers charged the demonstrators, beating them with night sticks. Lewis's skull was fractured, but he escaped across the bridge, to a church in Selma. Before he could be taken to the hospital, John Lewis appeared before the television cameras calling on President Johnson to intervene in Alabama.
The violent deaths of his friends Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968 were a great blow to John Lewis, but Lewis remained committed as ever to the philosophy of nonviolence. As Director of the Voter Education Project (VEP), he helped bring nearly four million new minority voters into the democratic process. For the first time since Reconstruction, African Americans were running for public office in the South, and winning.
Since then he has been re-elected repeatedly by overwhelming margins, on one occasion running unopposed. Today, he represents Georgia's Fifth Congressional District, encompassing the entire city of Atlanta and parts of four surrounding counties. Congressman Lewis sits on the House Budget Committee and House Ways and Means Committee, where he serves on the Subcommittee on Health. He serves as Senior Chief Deputy Democratic Whip, is a member of the Democratic Steering Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists. Apart from his service in Congress, he is Co-Chair of the Faith and Politics Institute.
Congressman Lewis began the 2008 presidential campaign as a supporter of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. His decision to switch his support to Senator Barack Obama was considered a major turning point in the campaign. When Lewis appeared at President Obama's inauguration, he was the only surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington.
The Congressman has long been an ardent supporter of health insurance reform. In an eerie echo of his past struggles, he was subjected to angry catcalls and abusive language by opponents of the 2010 health care bill as he entered the Capitol for a crucial vote. As in years past, his courage was unwavering, and the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act remains one of the proudest achievements of his legislative career. The folowing year, in a ceremony at the White House, President Barack Obama awarded him the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
600 marchers protesting bus segration across the Edmund
Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. This day
would be marked in American history as Bloody Sunday.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "I Have a Dream" speech on the
steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963.