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John Lewis: Pioneer of Good Trouble

John Lewis, sitting in his office
Andrea Mohin, "John Lewis, Towering Figure of Civil Rights Era, Dies at 80", New York Times

John Lewis was a minister, civil rights leader, and an American statesman who served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia's 5th congressional district. John Lewis was born near Troy, Alabama, on February 21, 1940, the child of sharecroppers Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis.

As a young child, he had little interaction with White people, as his county was majority Black by a large percentage and was a farming family. According to his memoir Walking with the wind, by the time he was six, Lewis had seen only two White people in his life [source]. It wasn’t until he began taking trips into Troy with his family, where he had expanded interaction with White people. From those trips came experiences of racism and segregation. Lewis had relatives who lived in northern cities, and he learned from them that in the North, schools, buses, and businesses were integrated. When Lewis was 11, an uncle took him to Buffalo, New York, where he became acutely aware of the contrast with Troy's segregation. In 1955, Lewis first heard Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio, and he closely followed King's Montgomery bus boycott later that year. In that same year at the age of 15, Lewis preached his first public sermon. Three years later he would go on the meet Dr. King for the first time, after writing to King about being denied admission to Troy University in Alabama. Lewis was invited to meet with him. The two discussed suing the university for discrimination, but Dr. King warned Lewis that doing so could endanger his family in Troy. After discussing it with his parents, Lewis decided instead to proceed with his education at American Baptist Theological Seminary, a small historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee. Lewis graduated and was ordained as a Baptist minister. He then went on to earn a bachelor's degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, also a historically Black college, where he became a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

During his time as a student in college he became a leading figure for activism and organizing of the civil rights movement in the Nashville area. He organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and took part in many other civil rights activities as part of the Nashville Student Movement. The Nashville sit-in movement was responsible for the desegregation of lunch counters in the city's downtown. He was also instrumental in organizing bus boycotts and other nonviolent protests to support voting rights and racial equality. He was arrested and jailed many times during the nonviolent activities to desegregate the city's downtown businesses.

In 1961, Lewis became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. The group of seven Black and six White people planned to ride on interstate buses from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans to challenge the policies of Southern states along the route that had imposed segregated seating on the buses, violating federal policy for interstate transportation. The Freedom Ride, originated by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and revived by James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was initiated to pressure the federal government to enforce the Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia (1960) that declared segregated interstate bus travel to be unconstitutional. The Freedom Rides revealed the passivity of local, state and federal governments in the face of violence against law-abiding citizens. The project was publicized; and organizers had notified the Department of Justice about it. It depended on the Alabama police to protect the riders, although the state was known for notorious racism. They did not undertake actions except assigning FBI agents to record incidents. After extreme violence broke out in South Carolina and Alabama, the Kennedy Administration called for a cooling-off period, with a moratorium on Freedom Rides. In the South, Lewis and other nonviolent Freedom Riders were beaten by angry mobs and arrested. At age 21, Lewis was the first of the Freedom Riders to be assaulted while in Rock Hill, South Carolina. When he tried to enter a Whites-only waiting room, two White men attacked him, injuring his face and kicking him in the ribs. Two weeks later Lewis joined a Freedom Ride bound for Jackson, Mississippi. Lewis said of this time, "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."[Source] As a result of his Freedom Rider activities, Lewis was imprisoned for 40 days in the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County. Once In Birmingham, the Riders were beaten by an unrestrained mob including KKK members with baseball bats, chains, lead pipes, and stones. The police arrested the Riders, and led them across the border into Tennessee before letting them go. The Riders reorganized and rode to Montgomery, where they were met with more violence. There Lewis was hit in the head with a wooden crate. He stated in an interview with CNN on the 40th anniversary of the rides "It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious,"[source]

When CORE gave up on the Freedom Ride because of the violence, Lewis and fellow activist Diane Nash arranged for Nashville students from Fisk and other colleges to take it over and bring it to a successful conclusion.

In 1963, Lewis, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was elected to take over as chairman. Later that year, as chairman of SNCC, Lewis was one of the "Big Six" leaders who were organizing the March on Washington that summer. At the age of just 23 he was scheduled as the fourth to speak, ahead of the final speaker, Dr. Martin Luther King. The speech most known from that event was King’s I Have Dream speech but it was Lewis’ speech that was turning heads and emotions before they were spoken to the public. Moments before the event Lewis was requested to edit his speech due fear of backlash from the Kennedy administration for the blunt statements Lewis was prepared to say about them failing to provide protection for African Americans against police brutality, and failing to provide African Americans with the means to vote. In 1964, Lewis coordinated SNCC's efforts for Freedom Summer, a campaign to register Black voters in Mississippi and to engage college student activists in aiding the campaign. Lewis traveled the country, encouraging students to spend their summer break trying to help people vote in Mississippi, which had the lowest number of Black voters and strong resistance to the movement. In 1965 Lewis became nationally known during his prominent role in the Selma to Montgomery marches. On March 7, 1965, 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 and the city-county boundary, 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 nightsticks. Lewis's skull was fractured, but he was aided in escaping across the bridge to Brown Chapel, a church in Selma that served as the movement's headquarters. Lewis bore scars on his head from this incident for the rest of his life. In 1966, he decided to step down as chairman of SNCC.

In 1970, Lewis became the director of the Voter Education Project (VEP), a position he held until 1977. Though initially a project of the Southern Regional Council, the VEP became an independent organization in 1971. Despite difficulties caused by the 1973–1975 recession, the VEP added nearly four million minority voters to the rolls under Lewis's leadership. During his tenure, the VEP expanded its mission, including running Voter Mobilization Tours. Lewis then went on from here to running for the United States House of Representatives for Georgia's 5th congressional district. He lost his initial campaign but eventually went on to win his following try and served in the position for the following 33 years. Unfortunately he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in December 2019 and passed away 7 months later on July 17, 2020. He was the last surviving member of the “Big Six” and has left behind a legacy we still see today. Just as he helped millions secure their equal voting rights and motivated them to use them. Organizers like Stacey Abrams in the state he so long served picked up the torch he has passed an helped over 800,000 voters of color get registered to vote helping swing the 2020 election against the man who he once was quoted saying “His hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in [the Mississippi] civil rights museum”. It is because of John Lewis that we have people like Stacey Abrams and although he may be gone his legacy will never be forgotten for there will also be people ready to get into some good trouble and necessary trouble.

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