John Lewis, U.S. House of Representatives   Leave a comment

John Robert Lewis (born February 21, 1940) is the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, serving since 1987. He was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), playing a key role in the struggle to end segregation. He is a member of the Democratic Party and is one of the most liberal legislators.



Early life, education, and early career

Born in Troy, Alabama, the third son of Eddie and Willie Mae Lewis. His parents were sharecroppers. Lewis was educated at the Pike County Training High School, Brundidge, Alabama and also American Baptist Theological Seminary and at Fisk University, both in Nashville, Tennessee, where he became active in the local sit-in movement. As a student he made a systematic study of the techniques and philosophy of nonviolence, and with his fellow students prepared thoroughly for their first actions. He participated in the Freedom Rides to desegregate the South, and was a national leader in the struggle for civil rights.[1] In an interview John Lewis said “I saw racial discrimination as a young child. I saw those signs that said “White Men, Colored Men, White Women, Colored Women.”…”I remember as a young child with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins going down to the public library trying to get library cards, trying to check some books out, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for “coloreds.” John Lewis followed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Rosa Parks on the radio. He and his family supported the Montgomery bus boycott.

  Civil rights activism

John Lewis was an influential SNCC leader and is recognized by most as one of the important leaders of the civil rights movement as a whole. He was born on February 21, 1940, in Troy, Alabama. His family were sharecroppers. He was a hard-working young man who overcame poverty and political disenfranchisement to educate himself.

He graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville and then received a bachelor’s degree in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University. As a student, Lewis was very dedicated to the civil rights movement. He organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville and took part in many other civil rights activities.

In 1961, Lewis joined SNCC in the Freedom Rides. Riders traveled the South challenging segregation at interstate bus terminals. Lewis and others received death threats and were severely beaten by angry mobs. In 1963, when Chuck McDew stepped down as SNCC chairman, Lewis was quickly elected to take over. Lewis’ experience at that point was already widely respected—he had been arrested 24 times as a result of his activism. He held the post of chairman until 1966.

In 1963, Lewis helped plan and took part in the March on Washington. At the age of 23, he was a keynote speaker at the historic event. In 1965, he led 525 marchers across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. State troopers attacked the marchers in a violent incident that later became known as “Bloody Sunday.” In 1981, Lewis was elected to his first official government office as an Atlanta City Council member. In 1986, he was elected to Congress, where he is currently serving his seventh term.

Hear John Lewis describe his experience on the Freedom Rides
As a student, Lewis was very dedicated to the civil rights movement. He was instrumental in organizing student sit-ins, bus boycotts and non-violent protests in the fight for voter and racial equality. In 1961 he joined SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and the Freedom Rides. He was 21 years old. John Lewis was one of the 13 original freedom riders. There were seven whites and six blacks.

He endured brutal beatings by angry mobs and suffered a fractured skull at the hands of Alabama State police as he led a march of 600 people in Selma in 1965. He was nearly beaten to death in Montgomery.[2][3]

In 1963, when Chuck McDew stepped down as SNCC chairman, Lewis was quickly elected to take over. Lewis’ experience at that point was already widely respected—he had been arrested 24 times as a result of his activism. He held the post of chairman until 1966. By 1963, he was recognized as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, along with Dr. King, Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins. He was one of the planners and keynote speakers of the March on Washington in August 1963, the occasion of Dr. King’s celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis represented [SNCC], the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and was the youngest speaker.[4]

In 1964, Lewis coordinated SNCC’s efforts for “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” a campaign to register black voters across the South. Lewis became nationally known during his prominent role in the Selma to Montgomery marches. On March 7, 1965—a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday” — Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. At the end of the bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers, who ordered them to disperse. When the marchers stopped to pray, the police discharged tear gas and mounted troopers charged the demonstrators, beating them with night sticks. Lewis’s skull was fractured, but he escaped across the bridge, to a church in Selma. Before he could be taken to the hospital, John Lewis appeared before the television cameras calling on President Johnson to intervene in Alabama. Lewis bears scars on his head that are still visible today.

Historian Howard Zinn wrote: “At the great Washington March of 1963, the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), John Lewis, speaking to the same enormous crowd that heard Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, was prepared to ask the right question: ‘Which side is the federal government on?’ That sentence was eliminated from his speech by organizers of the March to avoid offending the Kennedy Administration. But Lewis and his fellow SNCC workers had experienced, again and again, the strange passivity of the national government in the face of Southern violence.”[5]

“John Lewis and SNCC had reason to be angry. At 21 years old, John Lewis was the first of the Freedom Riders to be assaulted while in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He tried to enter a whites-only waiting room and two white men attacked him, injuring his face and kicking him in the ribs. Nevertheless, only two weeks later Lewis joined a Freedom Ride that was bound for Jackson. “We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal. We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back,” Lewis said recently in regard to his perseverance following the act of violence.[6]

In an interview with CNN during the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Lewis recounted the sheer amount of violence he and the 12 other original Freedom Riders endured. In Anniston, Alabama the bus was fire-bombed after Ku Klux Klan members deflated its tires, forcing it to come to a stop. In Birmingham, the Riders were mercilessly beaten, and in Montgomery an angry mob met the bus, where Lewis was hit in the head with a wooden crate. “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious,” said Lewis, remembering the incident. The original intent of the Freedom Rides was to test the new law that banned segregation in public transportation. It also exposed the passivity of the government regarding violence against citizens of the country who were simply acting in accordance to the law.[7] The federal government had trusted the notoriously racist Alabama police to protect the Riders, but did nothing itself, except to have FBI agents take notes. The Kennedy Administration then called for a ‘cooling-off period,’ a moratorium on Freedom Rides.[5] Lewis had been imprisoned for forty days in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County, Mississippi after participating in a Freedom Riders activity in that state.[8]

Lewis at meeting of American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1964

In February 2009, forty-eight years after he had been bloodied by the Ku Klux Klan during civil rights marches, Lewis received an apology on national television from a white southerner, former Klansman Elwin Wilson.[9][10]

After leaving SNCC in 1966, Lewis worked with community organizations and was named community affairs director for the National Consumer Co-op Bank in Atlanta.

  Early political career

Before being elected to Atlanta City Council in 1981, Lewis faced “years of criticism as a holier-than-thou publicity seeker who challenged city leaders on ethical matters”.[11] In the context of the “war on drugs“, Lewis challenged Julian Bond to take a urine drug test during the 1986 Democratic runoff.[12] The Houston Chronicle called it “perhaps the best-known example” of congressional candidates challenging their opponents to drug testing.[12] The challenge could have served in Lewis’ favor in his upset win as “there were signs that it may have damaged Bond among older black voters concerned about drug abuse among blacks”.[12]

Lewis first ran for elective office in 1977, when a vacancy occurred in Georgia’s 5th congressional district. A special election was called after President Jimmy Carter appointed incumbent U.S. Congressman Andrew Young to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Lewis lost the race to Atlanta City Councilman and future U.S. Senator Wyche Fowler.

After his unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1977, Lewis was without a job and in debt from his campaign. He accepted a position with the Carter administration as associate director of ACTION, responsible for running the VISTA program, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and the Foster Grandparent Program. He held that job for two and a half years, resigning as the 1980 election approached.[13] In 1981, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council.

  U.S. House of Representatives



A special election in 1977 was called after President Jimmy Carter appointed incumbent U.S. Congressman Andrew Young to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In the Democratic special primary, Lewis and fellow Atlanta City Councilman Wyche Fowler qualified for the run-off primary because no candidate got the 50% threshold and they were the top two candidates.[14] Fowler defeated Lewis 62%-38%.[15]


In 1986, when Fowler retired to run for the United States Senate, Lewis defeated fellow civil rights leader and State Senator Julian Bond in the run-off primary 52%-48%.[16] This upset win[12] was tantamount to election in the heavily Democratic, majority-black 5th District as Lewis won the general election with 75% of the vote in 1986.[17] Lewis was the second African-American to represent Georgia in Congress since Reconstruction. (Young was the first.) In 1988, he won re-election with 78% of the vote.[18]


In this decade, his worst winning percentage was in 1994 (69%).


In this decade, his worst winning percentage was in 2000 (77%).[19]


He won re-election with 74% of the vote, his worst winning percentage of his career.[20]


The Washington Post described Lewis in 1998 as “a fiercely partisan Democrat but … also fiercely independent.”[21] Lewis described himself as a strong and adamant liberal.[21] In 2006, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said Lewis was “often ranked as having the 10th-most liberal voting record in Congress”.[11] Lewis was also described as the “only former major civil rights leader who extended his fight for human rights and racial reconciliation to the halls of Congress”.[11] For “those who know him, from U.S. senators to 20-something congressional aides” they refer to him as the “conscience of Congress”.[11] Lewis has cited former Florida Senator and Congressman Claude Pepper, a staunch liberal, as being the colleague that he has most admired.[22] Lewis has spoken out in support of gay rights and national health insurance,[21] and he has worked with the Faith and Politics Institute to advance their goals.[23]

Lewis opposed the U.S. waging of the 1991 Gulf War,[24] NAFTA,[25] and the 2000 trade agreement that passed the House with China.[26] Lewis opposed the Clinton administration on NAFTA and welfare reform.[21] After welfare reform passed, Lewis was described as outraged; he said, “Where is the sense of decency? What does it profit a great nation to conquer the world, only to lose its soul?”[27] In 1994, when Clinton was considering invading Haiti, Lewis, in contrast to the Congressional Black Caucus, opposed armed intervention.[28] When Clinton did send troops to Haiti, Lewis rallied ’round the flag, called for supporting the troops and called the intervention a “mission of peace”.[29] In 1998, when Clinton was considering a military strike against Iraq, Lewis said he would back the president if American forces were ordered into action.[30] In 2001, three days after the September 11 attacks, Lewis voted to give Bush authority to retaliate in a vote that was 420–1; Lewis called it probably one of his toughest votes.[23] In 2002, he sponsored the Peace Tax Fund bill, a conscientious objection to military taxation initiative that had been reintroduced yearly since 1972.[31] Lewis was a “fierce partisan critic of President Bush” and the Iraq war.[11] The Associated Press said he was “the first major House figure to suggest impeaching George W. Bush,” arguing that the president “deliberately, systematically violated the law” in authorizing the National Security Agency to conduct wiretaps without a warrant. Lewis said, “He is not King, he is president.”[32]

Lewis draws on his historical involvement in the civil rights movement as part of his politics. He “makes an annual pilgrimage to Alabama to retrace the route he marched in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery – a route Lewis has since had declared part of the Historic National Trails program. That trip has become one of the hottest tickets in Washington among lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, eager to associate themselves with Lewis and the movement. ‘We don’t deliberately set out to win votes, but it’s very helpful,’ Lewis said of the trip”.[11]


In March 2003, Lewis spoke to a crowd of 30,000 in Oregon during an anti-war protest before the Iraq War started.[33] Lewis has been arrested for civil disobedience during protests no fewer than twice as a Congressman. Lewis was arrested in 2006[34] and 2009 and outside the Sudan embassy to express opposition to the genocide in Darfur.[35]


Lewis endorsed Joe Lieberman for re-election to the Senate in 2006 after Lieberman’s loss to Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary.[36] In the 2004 Presidential race, Lewis endorsed Senator John Kerry (Democrat).[37] Lewis was one of 31 House members who voted not to count the electoral votes from Ohio in the 2004 presidential election.[38]

2008 Presidential election

Lewis speaks during the final day of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado.

On October 12, 2007, Lewis endorsed the presidential campaign of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.[39] On February 14, 2008, Lewis announced he was considering withdrawing his support from Clinton and might instead cast his superdelegate vote for Barack Obama: “Something is happening in America and people are prepared and ready to make that great leap.”[40] On February 27, 2008, Lewis formally changed his support and endorsed Obama.[41][42] After Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for president, Lewis said “If someone had told me this would be happening now, I would have told them they were crazy, out of their mind, they didn’t know what they were talking about … I just wish the others were around to see this day. … To the people who were beaten, put in jail, were asked questions they could never answer to register to vote, it’s amazing.”[43] Despite switching his support to Obama, Lewis’ support of Clinton for several months led to criticism from his constituents. One of his challengers in the House primary election set up campaign headquarters inside the building that served as Obama’s Georgia office.[44]

In October 2008, Lewis generated significant controversy[clarification needed] by issuing a statement criticizing the campaign of John McCain and Sarah Palin and comparing their actions to those of certain segregationists, specifically George Wallace, during the Civil Rights Movement, stating that “What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. [Sarah] Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.” As the controversy surrounding his statements escalated, Lewis quickly re-issued a subsequent statement claiming that he never intended to compare McCain and Palin to Wallace himself, rather that his early statement was simply a “reminder to all Americans that toxic language can lead to destructive behavior.”[45]

 Committee assignments

  Caucus membership

Since 1991, Lewis has been senior chief deputy whip in the Democratic caucus.[citation needed] A December 2009 report on privately financed Congressional travel by The New York Times found Lewis to be recipient of the most trips since 2007, with a total of 40.[


Posted February 19, 2012 by pennylibertygbow in Uncategorized

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