Long-time voter registration activist Rufus Lewis nominated his pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr., as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) at the founding meeting on 5 December 1955. Lewis organized the Citizen Coordinating Committee in 1954 with Jo Ann Robinson and E. D. Nixon “to develop united efforts in voting, to get more people registered and to create civic consciousness.” Lewis attributed the success of the boycott to the unity of the black community: “The mass meetings help to keep the spirit up in the minds of the common man. Negroes know what they want, although it’s expressed by someone else” (Lewis, 20 January 1956).
Lewis was born in Montgomery on 30 November 1906, and graduated from Fisk University in 1931. A librarian and athletic coach at Alabama State College from the mid-1930s to 1941, he later taught night school for World War II veterans. In 1958, after his wife’s death, he began operating her family’s funeral business. A member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Lewis organized the Citizens Club, a social club that provided voter registration assistance in 1952. Lewis also traveled throughout the South training voter registration workers.
Once described by King as having “an inextinguishable passion for social justice,” Lewis headed the MIA’s transportation committee and co-chaired its committee on registration and voting (King, May 1958). He offered his Citizens Club as the MIA headquarters when they had trouble securing space, only to rescind his offer when he was warned that his license could be suspended. Lewis continued chairing the registration and voting committee after the end of the boycott and sent King a letter asking him to support a get-out-the-vote drive in 1958.
Lewis was active in the Democratic Party in Alabama, serving as the first president of the Montgomery County Democratic Conference. In 1976, he was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, resigning in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter appointed him a U.S. Marshal and he became the first African American from the Middle District of Alabama to hold the position.