One of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced, Congressman John Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he described as “The Beloved Community” in America.
The “conscience of the U.S. Congress,” grew up as the son of sharecroppers, where he was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a protest campaign against racial segregation on public transit that started in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, and by the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to become a part of the Civil Rights Movement; a mass protest movement against racial segregation and discrimination in the U.S. that peaked between 1955 and 1965.
As a student at American Baptist College, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations, was one of the Freedom Riders, who were civil rights activists that rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States, and was named Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form.
By 1963, he was dubbed one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. At the age of twenty-three, he was an architect of, and a keynote speaker at, the historic March on Washington in August 1963. Attended by some 250,000 people, it was the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation’s capital. The event is remembered for Lewis’ keynote address and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
In 1964, he coordinated voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a campaign in June 1964 that attempted to register as many African-American voters as possible. The following year, Lewis helped lead over 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, with intentions to march to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday” and hastened the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Despite more than forty 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 went on to become the Director of the Voter Education Project (VEP). Under his leadership, the VEP transformed the nation’s political climate by adding nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls.
He was elected to Congress in November 1986 and has served as U.S. Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since then.
John Lewis holds a B.A. in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University, and he is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary. He has been awarded over fifty honorary degrees and is the recipient of numerous awards from eminent national and international institutions, including the only John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement ever granted.
The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The nonviolent revolution is saying, “We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, nor the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands, and create a great source of power, outside of any national structure that could and would assure us victory.” For those who have said, “Be patient and wait!” we must say, “Patience is a dirty and nasty word.” We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.
In His Own Words
REMARKS BY JOHN LEWIS: 2001 JFK PROFILE IN COURAGE AWARD CEREMONY
I did what I thought was right when I went on the Freedom Rides in 1961.
We wanted to test a Supreme Court ruling that banned segregation in an interstate travel facility. When the bus arrived in Rock Hill, South Carolina, I deboarded the bus and approached the white waiting room. We were being watched and someone pointed to the “colored sign.” I said: “I have a right to be here on the grounds of the Supreme Court decision in the Boynton case.” Seconds later, I was attacked and the blood of another battle in the struggle for civil rights was drawn. I will never, ever forget that moment. I was 21. I was a sharecropper’s son from a farm near Troy, Alabama. Yet, somehow, I learned that where there is injustice, you cannot ignore the call of conscience.
On May 21, 1961, the Freedom Riders were trapped in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery. The day before, we had been surrounded by a sea of people at the Montgomery Greyhound bus station – a mob shouting and screaming, men swinging fists, baseball bats, lead pipes – and others throwing stones – women swinging heavy purses – little children clawing with their fingernails at the faces of anyone they could reach.
It was madness. It was unbelievable. We thought we were going to die.
Somewhere in my youth I remember hearing: “Sorrow may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”
That night at First Baptist was a long, long night. If we continued the Freedom Ride, we would face arrest or worse. And if we stopped the Rides, freedom would be denied.
An angry mob surrounded the church-throwing stones and firebombs, overturning cars, even pounding on the walls of the sanctuary. While we prayed and sang freedom songs, President Kennedy and the Attorney General desperately negotiated with the Governor of Alabama-fighting for our safety.
It was our sorrow and the nation’s sorrow for that night. And for many more nights to come, the American people – indeed the world – would witness many more beatings, jailing and even the killing of non-violent protesters daring a better America.
By that morning, joy had come to us: President Kennedy made a bold and courageous decision to federalize the Alabama National Guard. He also sent in federal marshals to protect us. We would make it to Jackson, Mississippi.
Until joy came in the morning after the long dark sorrow of her soul, America could not be America. The joy of morning comes not by our will but by what I call the Spirit of History – It sweeps us up and commands us to answer hate and fear with love and courage.
Courage is a reflection of the heart – It is a reflection of something deep within the man or woman or even a child who must resist and must defy an authority that is morally wrong. Courage makes us march on despite fear and doubt on the road toward justice. Courage is not heroic but as necessary as birds need wings to fly. Courage is not rooted in reason but rather Courage comes from a divine purpose to make things right.
Marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, we weren’t supposed to make it to Montgomery in 1965.
But we did.
Arriving in Montgomery on a Greyhound bus, we met angry mobs. We were left for dead on the cold pavement.
But we continued our journey.
Seeking to register blacks during Freedom Summer in Mississippi, three young civil rights workers were taken from their jail cell, left on a dark country road and murdered in the darkness of night.
But we could not be stopped. Hundreds more students joined us that summer.
In building a new America, we saw a vision then as we do now of the Beloved Community. Consider those two words. “Beloved” means not hateful, not violent, not uncaring, not unkind. And “Community” means not separated, not polarized, not locked in struggle. Beaten and tired but not defeated, our hopes could not be dimmed.
When you stand up to injustice. When you refuse to let brute force crush you. When you love the man who spits on you or calls you names or puts a lighted cigarette in your hair. You come to believe that righteousness will always prevail. Just hold on.
We – and I mean countless thousands and even millions of Americans – changed old wine into new. We tore down the walls of racial division. We inspired a generation of creative non-violent protest. And we are still building a new America – a Beloved America, a community at peace with itself in Beloved Boston, Beloved Cincinnati, Beloved Washington, Beloved Atlanta and in every Beloved city, town, village and hamlet in our nation and in the world. Yes, our world can become a Beloved World. A world not divided but united.
We cannot forget the unsung heroes who cared deeply, sacrificed much and fought hard for a better America. For the brave men and women who stood in unmovable lines because they were determined to vote. For those who expressed themselves by sitting down in Montgomery, in Nashville, in Birmingham and throughout the south, they were fighting for a just and open society. For the black and white freedom riders who rode a bus, faced angry mobs, survived a burning bus and slept for days on the cold floor of a jail cell, they too must be looked upon as the founding mothers and fathers of a new America.
We must move our feet, our hands, our hearts, our resources to build and not to tear down, to reconcile and not to divide, to love and not to hate, to heal and not to kill. I hope and pray that we continue our daring drive to work toward the Beloved Community.
It is still within our reach.
Keep your eyes on the Prize.