John Robert Lewis

John R. Lewis, now a congressman from Atlanta, was one of the early student leaders in the Civil Rights movement in Tennessee. Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, in Troy, Alabama, to Eddie and Willie Mae Carter Lewis. One of ten children reared approximately fifty miles from Montgomery on a small farm without electricity or plumbing, Lewis attended the public schools of Troy. In 1957 he became the first member of his family to complete high school.

After completing his secondary education, Lewis entered American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College) in Nashville. A year later, he became involved in the workshops on nonviolence directed by the Reverend James Lawson, under the sponsorship of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference (NCLC). Inspired by the Reverend Martin L. King Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955), Lewis actively participated in the movement to secure African American civil rights.

In November and December 1959, Lewis joined other students in the first unsuccessful attempts by the NCLC to desegregate Nashville lunch counters. On February 13, 1960, he participated in Nashville's first full-scale sit-in. Seven days later, after whites verbally tormented the students at the Walgreen's lunch counter, Lewis formulated the rules of conduct that became the code of behavior for protest movements throughout the South. His participation in workshops at the Highlander Research and Education Center further strengthened his belief in nonviolent direct action.

Like other Nashville students, Lewis demonstrated against the city's segregated movie theaters. As he did during the sit-ins, Lewis refused to post bail when arrested. In April 1960 he became a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, North Carolina. A year later, he graduated from American Baptist Theological Seminary and joined the freedom rides. In 1963 he was a principal speaker at the August 28 March on Washington. Delivering one of the most stinging declamations of the day, Lewis predicted, “By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of God and democracy.” (1)

After his graduation from Fisk University in 1963 Lewis served as chairman of SNCC. He resigned in 1966 in protest to the organization's increasing militancy and was replaced by Stokley Carmichael (now Kwame Ture). A leader of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches, Lewis sustained a fractured skull when Alabama law enforcement officials charged the crowd of peaceful protesters during the first march in 1965. From the beginning of his civil rights career in Nashville, Lewis was beaten unconscious four times and arrested at least forty times during the 1960s.

From 1970 to 1977 Lewis served as director of the Voter Education Project (VEP) of the Southern Regional Council. In 1975 he received the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize, the highest award given by the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change. Eight years later, Lewis was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for his contributions to voter education and registration.

In 1982 Lewis won election to the Atlanta City Council and served as councilman-at-large until 1986. In that year he ran as a Democrat and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia's Fifth Congressional District. To date, Lewis has been continuously reelected to his congressional seat.

Suggested Reading

Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981); Linda T. Wynn, “The Dawning of a New Day: The Nashville Sit-Ins, February 13-May 10, 1960,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 50 (1991): 42-54

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  • Article Title John Robert Lewis
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 14, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018