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JOHN LEWIS Printer Friendly Page
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  • Democratic Member of Congress
  • Activist in the 1960s civil rights movement
  • Member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus

John Lewis was born to sharecropper parents on February 21, 1940 in Troy, Alabama. An aspiring Christian minister, Lewis as a teenager practiced his preaching skills by addressing the chickens in his parents' barnyard; he also delivered a number of actual sermons at local Baptist churches. In February 1960 he participated in the first civil-rights sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1961 Lewis earned a BA in theology at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville.[1]

In 1961 as well, Lewis took part in the first Freedom Rides, which famously challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. In the course of these activities, he was savagely beaten in South Carolina and Montgomery, Alabama. Moreover, by 1963 Lewis had been arrested 24 times for his participation in civil-rights direct actions.

Also in '63, Lewis spoke at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.[2]  That same year, Lewis was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

From 1962-64, Lewis was a sponsor and vice chairman of a Communist Party USA (CPUSA) front group known as the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In 1964 Lewis helped coordinate the Mississippi Summer Project for voter registration. The following year, he and Rev. Hosea Williams led some 600 protesters in the first voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Lewis's skull was fractured by police during that demonstration on March 7, 1965, which became known as “Bloody Sunday.” (All told, 58 people were treated for injuries at a local hospital that day.)

At a 1965 banquet in Terre Haute, Indiana, Lewis was the first honoree of the annual Eugene Debs Award, named for the Socialist Party of America founder. That same year, Lewis wrote an article titled “Paul Robeson: Inspirer of Youth,” for the CPUSA propaganda magazine Freedomways. The piece lauded Robeson, who had been a CPUSA member and a devoted admirer of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, and stated that “we of SNCC are Paul Robeson’s spiritual children.”

In 1966 Lewis was replaced as SNCC chairman by Stokely Carmichael. In '66 as well, Lewis began a seven-year stint as director of the Voter Education Project, which registered approximately 4 million black voters.

In 1967 Lewis paid tribute to Norman Thomas, a six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America, as a man who “has symbolized to millions of Americans the ideals of peace, freedom and equality.” That same year Lewis earned his second BA—in philosophy/religion—from Fisk University.

Circa 1969, Lewis was listed as a sponsor of the GI Civil Liberties Defense Committee, an anti-U.S.-military organization dominated by the Socialist Workers Party.

In May 1973 Lewis was listed as a “sponsor” of “A Call” for a founding conference of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, a CPUSA front.

In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed Lewis as director of ACTION, the federal agency that oversaw domestic volunteer programs.

After serving as community affairs director for the National Consumer Cooperative Bank from 1980-82, Lewis sat on the Atlanta City Council from 1982-86.

In 1986 Lewis defeated Julian Bond in a Democratic primary runoff and then won the general election for a U.S. House seat representing the Fifth Congressional District of Georgia, which includes most of Atlanta. He has held that seat ever since.

When the Marxist Sandinista government of Nicaragua announced in October 1989 that it would no longer comply with a ceasefire agreement it had previously reached with the Reagan-backed Contra rebels, the House of Representatives voted 379-29 in favor of a resolution deploring the Sandinistas' action; Lewis was one of the 29 Democrats who opposed the resolution.

In 1989 Lewis was a founding member of the Institute for Southern Studies, a North Carolina-based spinoff of the Institute for Policy Studies. Additional founders included Julian Bond, Marcus Raskin, and others.

From the floor of the House on March 21, 1995
four months after Republicans had won House and Senate majorities on the strength of their “Contract With AmericaLewis paraphrased the anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous observations about the Nazi takeover: “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews … trade unionists … Catholics … Protestants…”  Then Lewis said grimly: “Read the Republican contract. They are coming for the children. They are coming for the poor. They are coming for the sick, the elderly, and the disabled.”

In 1996, the Democratic Socialists of America Political Action Committee endorsed Lewis's congressional campaign.

In August 2003 Lewis contributed an article to the CPUSA paper
People's Weekly World, titled “An Open letter to my Colleagues in Congress: Remembering the Legacy of Martin Luther King.”

One of Lewis's passions has been the “normalization” of relations between the United States and Cuba. In June 2004, his office dispatched employee Michael Collins for a four-day “fact-finding” trip to Havana. The trip cost $1,280.16 and was funded by the Christopher Reynolds Foundation. In 2013 Lewis was one of 59 House Members who signed a letter urging President Barack Obama to “support travel to Cuba by granting general licenses for ALL current categories of travel.” (Emphasis in original)

In November 2007 Lewis was a special guest at the Democratic Socialists of America's national conference in Atlanta, where he introduced Bernie Sanders to those in attendance.

When the House of Representatives voted by a 345-75 margin to defund the notoriously corrupt community organization ACORN in September 2009, Lewis was one of the 75—all Democrats—who voted to continue funding the group. For a list of other legislators who voted as Lewis did, click here.

On July 28, 2010, Lewis and Tom Harkin co-sponsored the kick-off event of the 21st Century Democrats' 2010 Youth Leadership Speaker Series, which featured appearances by such notables as Elijah Cummings, Van Jones, and Barbara Lee.

Lewis is a strong
supporter of the the DREAM Act—legislation designed to create a path-to-citizenship for illegal immigrants who first arrived in the United States as minors. “We all live in the same house,” he said at a 2011 rally. “If any one of us is illegal, then we all are illegal. There is no illegal human being.” Lewis revisited this theme in January 2014, when he said that “if Dr. King were here today, he would be traveling and preaching all across America” to promote “comprehensive immigration reform” to legalize millions, on grounds that “there is no such thing as illegal human being.”

On October 8, 2013, Lewis was one of eight members of Congress (all Democrats) who were arrested when they sat in the middle of Independence Avenue in Washington and blocked rush-hour traffic during a massive immigration rally intended to persuade Congress to pass legislation allowing illegal immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship. Also arrested were Joseph Crowley, Keith Ellison, Al Green, Raul Grijalva, Luis Gutierrez, Charles Rangel, and Jan Schakowsky.

In mid-July 2014, after scores of thousands of (mostly unaccompanied) Central American minors had crossed the southern U.S. border illegally since October of the previous year, Lewis tweeted a message in favor of open borders: “We are all connected. We can't just build a wall or a fence and say no more. This is America. Our doors are open.”

In 2013 Lewis received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Midwest Academy. In 2014 and 2015, he served on the Gala Host Committee at the Midwest Academy Awards Ceremonies.

In March 2015, Massachusetts CPUSA leader Gary Dotterman described Lewis as “my hero, my comrade, my inspiration and my friend.”

In 2014 and 2016, the J Street PAC endorsed Lewis's congressional campaigns.

Lewis is a longtime member of both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus. For an overview of his voting record on a variety of key issues during the course of his legislative career, click here, here, and here.

For additional information on John Lewis, click here.


[1] During Lewis's time at the American Baptist Theological Seminary, the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, a local black minister and activist, introduced him to Vanderbilt University divinity student James Lawson, who was conducting workshops on nonviolent social action. Soon thereafter, Lewis also met veteran organizers like Myles Horton (a socialist) and Septima Clark, who ignited within him a “fire” for activism. Lewis was also deeply affected by a 1959 Spelman College workshop where he heard veteran organizers Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Glenn Smiley, and James Lawson lay out a blueprint for dismantling Jim Crow segregation laws.

[2] In drafting his own speech, Lewis received input from a number of SNCC activists including Julian Bond, Eleanor Holmes (Norton), and James Forman. In the original draft of his speech, Lewis had planned to say: “The revolution is a serious one. [President] Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the street and put it into the courts.... The black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won't be a 'cooling-off' period. We won't stop now. The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground––nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.... We will not be patient!” Key civil-rights figures like Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, and A. Philip Randolph considered portions of Lewis's speech too inflammatory and persuaded him, with much contentious argumentation, to remove the reference to Sherman's army. For additional details about the behind-the-scenes angst regarding Lewis's speech, click here.





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