Birthday: February 21, 1940
Died At Age: 80
Sun Sign: Pisces
Also Known As: John Robert Lewis
Born Country: United States
Born in: Alabama, United States
Famous as: Former United States Representative
political ideology: Democratic
Spouse/Ex-: Lillian Miles (m. 1968)
father: Eddie Lewis
mother: Willie Mae (née Carter), Willie Mae Carter
siblings: Adolph Lewis, Edward Lewis, Ethel Lewis, Freddie Lewis, Grant Lewis, Ora Lewis, Rosa Lewis, Sammy Lewis, William Lewis
Died on: July 17, 2020
place of death: Atlanta, Georgia, United States
Cause of Death: Pancreatic Cancer
U.S. State: Alabama, African-American From Alabama
education: Fisk University, American Baptist College
Who was John Lewis?
John Lewis was one of the most important and influential figures of the American Civil Rights movement as well as a member of the United States House of Representatives for Georgia's 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020. Originally from segregated Alabama, Lewis grew up experiencing first-hand what that entailed. As a youth, he became one of the “big six” leaders of the coalition that assembled the historic 1963 March on Washington. He was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) between1963 and 1966. John Lewis, as one of the leaders of three Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, was brutally attacked by the authorities in an incident that gained infamy as Bloody Sunday. After entering politics, he joined the Democratic Party. During his tenure in the US Congress, he maintained an almost reverential adherence to his staunch liberal ideals and regularly opposed legislation that he felt were in violation of them, including even those proposed by his own party. He supported Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 US presidential elections and Hilary Clinton in 2016.
Childhood & Early Life
John Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, in Troy, Alabama, USA. His parents, Willie Mae (née Carter) and Eddie Lewis, were sharecroppers. He had two older and seven younger siblings.
When he was a child, he did not have much interaction with white people. He studied in segregated schools, and his parents had advised him not to actively go against the rampant inequalities that existed in the Jim Crow South.
In his teenage years, he was greatly inspired by the non-violent defiance of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. With the desire to desegregate Troy State College (now Troy University), he reached out to both of them.
Ultimately, his parents convinced him to enrol at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, where he became an ordained minister. He later attended Fisk University, from where he earned his bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy.
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Civil Rights Activism
While John Lewis was in Nashville, he first became involved in the civil rights activism and started joining non-violent sit-in protests at lunch counters and other segregated public places.
He was arrested for the first time in 1961 during the original Freedom Rides agitation, in which Lewis and 12 others rode interstate buses, challenging the law that prohibited black and white riders from occupying seats next to each other.
He became the chairman of the SNCC in 1963 and served in that position for the next three years before stepping down in 1966, when the organisation started to embrace more militant views.
In 1963, he also played an instrumental role in the March on Washington as part of the “big six”, which was comprised of Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and John Lewis.
On March 7, 1965, John Lewis participated in one of the most defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement. He and fellow activist, Hosea Williams, organised a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, seeking voting rights. The group of roughly 600 marchers encountered state government officials, including sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, and deputized “possemen”, while trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River. They had tear gas thrown at them and were run down with horses and beaten with bullwhips and billy clubs.
This was done on the direct orders from the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace. Lewis, along with at least 50 other protesters, was severely injured and had to be hospitalised. He had a fractured skull, the scar from which he bore for the rest of his life.
Following the Bloody Sunday, which was televised into millions of American homes, protests started to spread like wildfire across the US, with demands for immediate actions from the federal government. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Acts into law.
In 1966, John Lewis relocated to New York to assume the post of the associate director at the Field Foundation. He then served as the director of the Voter Education Project (VEP) from 1970 to 1977.
He debuted in the political sphere in 1977 when he ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic ticket for Georgia's 5th congressional district against Atlanta City Councilman, Wyche Fowler. He was subsequently made the associate director of ACTION in the Jimmy Carter administration, in charge of the VISTA program, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and the Foster Grandparent Program. After resigning from there, he won an at-large seat on the Atlanta City Council in 1981, holding the post until 1986.
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His first successful bid for the seat for Georgia's 5th congressional district happened in 1986. He defeated another important civil rights figure, Julian Bond, in the Democratic primary before winning against Republican candidate, Portia Scott, in the general election.
John Lewis went on to win the seat 16 other times between 1988 and 2018. He was Democrat’s Chief Deputy Whip between 1991 and 2003 and from 2003 onwards, Senior Chief Deputy Whip. Lewis was known for often referring to his Civil Rights involvement during his political career. He voted against the 1991 Gulf War, the 2000 U.S. trade agreement with China, and Bill Clinton administration's NAFTA and welfare reform. He was a vocal supporter of gay rights and national health insurance.
Although he initially backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, he later supported Obama. After Obama’s election, he called it a “down payment”, adding that there were too many people still marginalised for it to be a fulfilment of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s dream.
In 2017, John Lewis did not attend Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony and had since been one of the fiercest critics of his administration.
In 2011, John Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the US along with the Congressional Gold Medal, by the Obama administration.
In 1998, John Lewis published his autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.
Personal Life & Family
John Lewis was introduced to his future wife, Lillian Miles, by their mutual friend and activist, Xernona Clayton, at her New Year’s Eve party in 1967. Less than a year later, the couple tied the knot at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia and moved to a modest house in southwest Atlanta where they resided for their entire life.
In 1976, they adopted their only child, John-Miles Lewis, who was only two months old at the time. Clayton, who remained as one of the closest friends of the couple, was their son’s godmother.
Death & Legacy
Lillian Miles passed away on December 31, 2012, exactly 45 years after their first meeting. In December 2019, Lewis told the reporters that he had stage IV pancreatic cancer. He died on July 17, 2020, in Atlanta. He was 80 years old at the time.
As one of the most prominent advocates of social justice, equality, and voting rights, John Lewis has left a lasting impression on US history and likely on the history of the world at large. The struggles that he, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and others endured, ultimately paved the way for Obama’s presidency. Even a month before his death, he was politically active and made his final public appearance at the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington in June 2020.