John Robert Lewis, the last of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders, chairman of SNCC, and Georgia congressman, passed away on 17 July. Born 21 February 1940 in rural Troy, Alabama, to sharecropper parents, Lewis was first inspired to fight against racial segregation after hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio in 1955. Lewis closely followed the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and met both Rosa Parks and King in 1957 and 1958, respectively.
After graduating from Nashville’s American Baptist Theological Seminary, Lewis earned a BA in religion and philosophy from Fisk University. During his years as a student, Lewis became increasingly involved in the civil rights movement, founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and organizing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, bus boycotts, and other nonviolent demonstrations. The sit-in movement eventually resulted in the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters.
Lewis was one of the first Freedom Riders in 1961, a cohort of thirteen young people (white and black) that attempted to ride a public bus from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans as a racially integrated group. Members of the group were harassed, beaten, and arrested. The publicized attacks on the riders pressured the federal government to enforce the ban on racial segregation in public transportation.
Lewis became the chairman of SNCC in 1963, and came to be known as one of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders that organized the 28 August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. During Lewis’s tenure as chairman, SNCC organized Freedom Schools, launched the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, and worked to register African-American voters. As part of the 1965 voter registration campaign in Selma, Alabama, Lewis led the march from Selma to Montgomery and was beaten by Alabama State Troopers in the infamous “Bloody Sunday” attack.
In his later life Lewis served in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Georgia’s fifth district, from 1987 until his death. Lewis’s contributions to American history were significant, and the struggle for racial justice remains ongoing. In an 18 December 2019 address to the House of Representatives, Lewis reminded the nation: “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, do something. Our children and their children will ask us: ‘What did you do? What did you say?’”
To read a 1958 letter from Lewis to King, click here: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/john-lewis