Lewis, John Robert

Lewis, John Robert, 1940–2020, African-American politician and civil-rights leader, b. near Troy, Ala., B.A. American Baptist Theological Seminary, 1961, B.A. Fisk Univ., 1967. The son of sharecroppers, he was an early advocate of nonviolence in the pursuit of civil rights for African Americans. A member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its president (1963–66), he organized lunch-counter sit-ins, was one of the original Freedom Riders, and helped organize the historic March on Washington (1963). Arrested more than 40 times, he was beaten by white mobs and police, most violently during the Selma to Montgomery march on “Bloody Sunday” (1965), when he was severely injured. After leaving SNCC, Lewis concentrated on voter education and headed (1977–80) ACTION, a federal volunteer agency. A liberal Democrat, he won election to the Atlanta city council in 1982; four years later he was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia. Lewis was a major supporter for the establishment of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016. Lewis won numerous awards and honorary degrees, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2011). He served in Congress until his death, known less for sponsoring legislation than for being the conscience of the Congress, continuing his fight for freedom, equality, and basic human rights.

See his autobiographies (2002, 1999; with M. D’Orso, 2012; with B. Jones, 2012), and graphic histories (2013, 2015, 2016, 2018; all with A. Aydin); biography by J. Meacham (2020); D. Halberstam, The Children (1998); D. Parter, dir., John Lewis: Good Trouble (documentary, 2020).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: U.S. History: Biographies