Born the son of sharecroppers on Feb. 21, 1940 outside of Troy, Alabama, John Lewis grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama.
His rise to prominence began as a student at Fisk University, when he organized sit-in demonstrations at Nashville’s segregated lunch counters. In 1961, Lewis volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. He risked his life on those rides many times by simply sitting in seats reserved for white patrons. He was beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South.
During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he helped form. SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activism, including sit-ins and other activities.
By 1963, at the age of 23, he was dubbed one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. He was an architect of, and a keynote speaker at, the historic March on Washington in August 1963.
In 1964, Lewis coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi “Freedom Summer.” The following year, he helped spearhead one of the most seminal moments of the Civil Rights Movement. Alongside Hosea Williams, he led more than 600 peaceful, orderly protesters on an intended march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. On March 7, 1965, as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” News broadcasts and photographs revealing the senseless cruelty in the segregated South helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Despite enduring more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, 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 through his participation in the Southern Regional Council’s voter registration programs. Lewis went on to direct the Voter Education Project, which transformed the nation’s political climate by adding nearly 4 million African-Americans to the voter rolls.
“Congressman Lewis exemplifies citizen leadership,” said Allan Stam, dean of the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. “From his days as a student leader to his co-founding of SNCC to his long career as an elected official, he has selflessly served the public good. We are honored to welcome him to the University of Virginia for this special occasion.”
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Lewis to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency.
In 1981, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council, where he advocated for ethics in government and neighborhood preservation. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986 and has represented Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since then. He is the Democratic Party’s senior chief deputy whip, a member of the House Ways & Means Committee, a member of its Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, and ranking member of its Subcommittee on Oversight.