John Robert Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, in rural Troy, Alabama, one of 10 children. His parents were poor sharecroppers who managed to buy their own small farm when Lewis was four years old. As a boy, he made his playmates listen to impromptu sermons he gave, and he imagined becoming a pastor. As he grew older, he heard Martin Luther King Jr.'s radio preaching, and at 16, Lewis's pastor allowed him to give his first sermon. He was in high school when the Montgomery Bus Boycott started.
In 1957, he went to American Baptist Theology (ABT) Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, a school that allowed students to work in exchange for tuition. At ABT he met James Bevel, another man who would emerge as a civil rights leader. The next year, Lewis met James Lawson and began studying the principles of nonviolence with him. Nashville students began having regular workshops in preparation for nonviolent actions protesting segregation in the future, which included role-playing sessions in which some students would pretend to be segregationists while others acted as protesters.
On February 1, 1960, four African American students sat at a whites-only lunch counter at a Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina. Lewis and his peers had been preparing for a moment like this, and the Nashville sit-ins began on February 13. Within a couple of weeks, protesters were being attacked and arrested. This movement was eventually successful, and Nashville's lunch counters were integrated. Following the spread of the sit-in movement throughout the South, students formed SNCC in April, and Lewis was a major organizer. In the wake of the sit-ins, Northern universities began inviting Lewis and other leaders to speak about the movement.
In 1961, Lewis took part in the Freedom Rides, designed to test a Supreme Court ruling banning segregation on interstate buses and in bus terminals. The interracial group of Freedom Riders planned to board buses in Washington, D.C., and ride them to New Orleans. Lewis had to leave the original group early because of an obligation, but he returned to Nashville to organize additional riders to keep the rides going in light of the violence the original riders endured. Lewis left on a bus with a group from Nashville and faced a violent mob at Birmingham's bus terminal. When Lewis disembarked in Montgomery, he faced a worse situation, and mobs beat Lewis and other riders severely. Police arrested Freedom Riders in Jackson, Mississippi; they were eventually sent to Parchman Prison. Hundreds of other students, witnessing these events, began following Lewis's path on buses throughout the South.
Lewis and his peers next turned their efforts to discrimination against African Americans in employment. The Nashville Student Movement (NSM) picketed and boycotted Nashville stores that took African Americans' money but would not employ them. In the fall, Lewis enrolled at Fisk University and became chair of the NSM.
In June 1963, Lewis was elected as SNCC's chair, and he moved to Atlanta to fulfill his duties. He thus was one of the "Big Six" civil rights leaders at the August 1963 March on Washington. Lewis also gave one of the speeches at the March, although other leaders pressured him to revise his speech because they thought it too inflammatory. He and his SNCC colleagues did so moments before the speech was to begin.
Lewis continued working on a variety of civil rights projects. Major projects included the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which would run a slate of African American candidates in that state; and Freedom Summer in 1964, which would bring hundreds of white volunteers from the North into Mississippi, well known as the most dangerous Southern state for civil rights workers. In fact, on June 21, the day the first wave of volunteers began their journey South, three civil rights workers were murdered—one African American and two whites. The results of Lewis's and his colleagues' efforts in Mississippi were mixed: many African Americans registered to vote, but the Democratic Party refused to seat the MFDP's delegation at its August convention.
After Freedom Summer, SNCC faced increasing organizational problems. Because of its growth, it was becoming difficult for committee members to continue making decisions by consensus. In addition, more and more SNCC workers were becoming less attached to nonviolence as a tactic, whereas others, like Lewis, remained deeply committed to it as a philosophy. SNCC had projects in operation all over the South, and although Lewis tried to keep abreast of all of them, in January 1965, he turned his attention to voter registration in Selma, Alabama. This action involved potential voters marching to the courthouse and attempting to register, where they were refused entrance and often arrested or beaten.
In the wake of protester Jimmie Lee Jackson's death—police shot him in the stomach as he tried to protect his mother from a beating—Lewis and others organized a march from Selma to Montgomery. The day the march was to begin, March 7, is now known as "Bloody Sunday" because mounted police severely beat, stomped, and teargassed protestors as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis led the marchers and was among the first to be beaten; he had to be hospitalized with a fractured skull.
After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the already simmering issues of African American separation and the rejection of nonviolence came to the fore within SNCC. In May 1966, at the end of SNCC's annual meeting—in this case a long, contentious, emotion-filled one—SNCC elected the fiery Stokely Carmichael as chair, replacing Lewis. He remained with SNCC for a short time, leaving in the wake of controversy over the June Meredith March in Mississippi and the emergence of the Black Power slogan.
Since leaving SNCC, Lewis has served as the U.S. Representative from Georgia's Fifth District, representing Atlanta since 1986. Before becoming a member of Congress, he worked on the Voter Education Project in the South and then in the Jimmy Carter administration as associate director of ACTION, which oversaw volunteer programs. Lewis also served on Atlanta's City Council, taking office in 1982.
Arsenault, Raymond. Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006; Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995; Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 195463. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988; Hogan, Wesley. Many Minds, One Heart: SNCCs Dream for a New America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007; Lewis, John, and Michael DOrso. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.