The 1998 release of “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement” by John Lewis, contains this Praise from Time Magazine, “Of all the surviving saints of the civil rights movement John Lewis …remains most committed to its original Creed. A stunning portrait of the power of moral consistency and courage.”
A ‘very present voice crying out in The Wilderness’ is John Robert Lewis; born February 21, 1940 in Troy, Pike County Alabama into a sharecropping family of 10 children. Lewis followed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks on the radio. He and his family supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Like many of the other great Civil Rights Activists, he too passed through Nashville. He attended the American Baptist College and earned a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University. He is a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity. As a student, he attended the Non-violence Workshops at Clark Memorial Church lead by Revs. James Lawson and Kelly Miller Smith.
The “February One” 1960 ‘Sit-Ins’ at the Woolworth Greensboro is the defining history for SNCC. Students at major HBCUs virally caught the ‘Sit-In’ Spirit. As the Nashville Sit-In movement progressed, Lewis was arrested and jailed several times. In April, Ella Baker, then director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in North Carolina, was concerned that SCLC, was out of touch with youth and invited the Students to conference at Shaw University in Raleigh. In organizing the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), Baker encouraged students to look beyond integration and view King’s principle of nonviolence more as a political tactic than as a way of life. Having attended, Lewis is credited a Founding Member.
Although the “Reconciliation Movement” with Bayard Rustin had long begun the work of US domestic Bus integration; also in 1960 Lewis became one of 13 original “Freedom Riders” when 7 whites and 6 blacks rode from Washington, DC, to New Orleans. At 21 Lewis was the first Freedom Rider assaulted while in Rock Hill, SC. He tried to enter a whites-only waiting room and two white men attacked him, injuring his face and kicking him in the ribs. In Anniston, AL, KKK members deflated the tires and fire-bombed the Bus. In Montgomery, Lewis was hit in the head with a wooden crate and left lying at the Greyhound bus station unconscious. He was imprisoned for 40 days in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County for Freedom Rider activity.
In 1963, Chuck McDew stepped down as SNCC chairman and Lewis was elected to take over. By this time, he had been arrested 24 times. This same year he sat at the table as a “Big Six” organizing leader of the March on Washington; at 23 the youngest speaker of the March. During his tenure, SNCC opened Freedom Schools, launched the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and organized the voter registration efforts that led to the pivotal Selma to Montgomery Marches.
On March 7, 1965, a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday”, John Lewis and Hosea Williams led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Lewis’ skull was fractured, but he escaped across the bridge to Brown Chapel. Before going to the hospital he appeared before the television cameras calling on
President Johnson to intervene in Alabama. He bears those scars today. After leaving SNCC in 1966 he turned over the reigns to Stokley Carmichael.
Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981. By 1986 he was elected Georgia 5th District US
Representative in a highly contested, run off election upset over Julian Bond, defeating Republican Portia Scott in the General Election. Between1988-2012 John Lewis was reelected 13 times. In February 2009, 48 years after he had been bloodied by the KKK during civil rights marches, Lewis received an apology on national television from a white southerner, former Klansman Elwin Wilson.
“As a young man I tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and racial discrimination, and I didn’t like it. I used to ask my parents, my grandparents, and my great grandparents, ‘Why segregation? Why racial discrimination?’ And they would say ‘that’s just the way it is. Don’t get in trouble…” But when I heard the words of Dr. King, I knew that I would strike a blow against segregation and racial discrimination, and I decided to get in trouble. I decided to get in the way. But it was good trouble, necessary trouble. Democracy is not a state. It is an act.”
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