- Longtime Democratic Member of Congress
- Activist in the 1960s civil rights movement
- Member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus
- Died in July 2020
Youth, Education, & Entry into the Civil Rights Movement
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 (ABTS) in Nashville. During Lewis’s time at ABTS, 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 Septima Clark and Myles Horton (a socialist), 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.
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 demonstrations.
Also in ’63, Lewis spoke at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
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.)
In 1966 Lewis began a seven-year stint as director of the Voter Education Project, which registered approximately 4 million black voters.
In 1967 Lewis earned his second BA—in philosophy/religion—from Fisk University.
Radical & Communist Ties
From 1962-64, Lewis was a vice chairman of a Communist Party USA (CPUSA) front group known as the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee (NCAHUAC). He also served as a vice chairman for the “Southern Region” of NCAHUAC’s successor organization, the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation.
In 1964 Lewis paid tribute to Norman Thomas, a six-time presidential candidate on the Socialist Party of America ticket, as a man who “has symbolized to millions of Americans the ideals of peace, freedom and equality.”
At a 1965 banquet in Terre Haute, Indiana, Lewis was the first honoree to receive the annual Eugene Debs Award, named for the founder of the Socialist Party of America. That same year, Lewis wrote an article lauding Paul Robeson, who had been a CPUSA member and a devoted admirer of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, as an “Inspirer of Youth,” for the CPUSA propaganda magazine Freedomways. And at a gala event celebrating Robeson’s 67th birthday in April 1965, Lewis stated that “we of SNCC are Paul Robeson’s spiritual children” because “we too have rejected gradualism and moderation.”
In 1966 Lewis was replaced as SNCC chairman by Stokely Carmichael.
When the U.S. Attorney General in 1966 sought to require the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs of America to register as a Communist-front organization under the terms of the Internal Security Act of 1950, Lewis protested stridently.
In their 1969 book Left of Liberal, Anthony Bouscaren and Daniel Lyons characterized Lewis as a “Marxist revolutionary” who “before turning over the chairmanship of SNCC to Stokely Carmichael helped author that organization’s infamous call for draft evasion.”
Circa 1969 as well, Lewis served 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 group that grew out of the movement to free the incarcerated Marxist revolutionary and Black Panther ally Angela Davis.
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.
In August 2003 Lewis contributed an article to the CPUSA newspaper People’s Weekly World, titled “An Open letter to my Colleagues in Congress: Remembering the Legacy of Martin Luther King.”
On August 24, 2012, Lewis attended Women’s Action for New Directions‘ celebration of the 10th anniversary of its “Stand for Peace,” which had called for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reductions in U.S. military spending, and increased expenditures on social welfare programs and environmental initiatives. Several Democratic Socialists of America members were present at this anniversary event.
In March 2015, Massachusetts CPUSA leader Gary Dotterman described Lewis as “my hero, my comrade, my inspiration and my friend.”
Entering Government & Politics
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. Moreover, Lewis was a longtime member of both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Refusing to Condemn the Marxist Sandinistas In Nicaragua
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.
Characterizing Republicans As Heartless Enemies of the Needy
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 America”—Lewis 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.”
Boycotting George W Bush’s 20001 Inauguration
After George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election (which was marred by the controversial Florida recount), Lewis and some other members of the Congressional Black Caucus boycotted Bush’s inauguration because they did not “believe Bush is the true elected president.”
Calling for Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations
One of Lewis’s passions was 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)
Vowing to only Approve Funding for Withdrawal of U.S. Forces from Iraq, and Not Funding for Continued Fighting
In 2007, John Lewis was one of 90 Members of Congress who signed an open letter to President Bush, stating: “We will only support appropriating funds for U.S. military operations in Iraq during Fiscal Year 2008 and beyond for the protection and safe redeployment of all our troops out of Iraq before you leave office.” The letter was initiated by the Peace Pledge Coalition, an alliance led by such notables as Medea Benjamin, Bill Fletcher, Kevin Zeese, and by representatives of the Progressive Democrats of America, Democrats.com, AfterDowningStreet.org (later renamed WarIsACrime.org), Velvet Revolution, and the Backbone Campaign.
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.
Endorsing Robert Creamer’s 2009 Book
Ties to 21st Century Democrats
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.
Supporting the DREAM Act, Path to Citizenship, & Open Borders
Lewis was 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.”
Accusing Conservatives, Republicans, and Americans Generally, of Racism
Lewis commonly accused his political and ideological adversaries of harboring racism in their hearts. Some noteworthy examples:
- In October 2008, Lewis accused Republican presidential candidate John McCain and and his running mate, Sarah Palin, of promoting racism in their campaign against Democratic nominee Barack Obama. “What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history,” Lewis said in a statement. “Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.” Lewis added: “George Wallace [the former the segregationist former governor of Alabama] never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on [a] Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.”
- In March 2010, Lewis and several fellow members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus falsely claimed that conservative Tea Party activists participating in an anti-Obamacare protest on the steps of Capitol Hill had shouted the “N-word” at them when they walked through the crowd. “It surprised me that people are so mean and we can’t engage in a civil dialogue and debate,” said Lewis. But his claim was never verified. When the late journalist/publisher Andrew Breitbart offered to donate $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund in exchange for any video evidence of anyone having shouted the “N-word” at Lewis or his colleagues, none was ever presented—despite the fact that hundreds of cameras had been present at the event in question.
- At the Democratic National Convention in September 2012, Lewis gave a speech in which he accused Republicans of seeking to bring back the days of Jim Crow segregation. After extensively describing the racism and violence that he personally had encountered during his own activist days in the South during the 1950 and ’60s, Lewis told the raucous crowd of some 20,000: “I’ve seen this before, I lived this before. We were met by an angry mob that beat us and left us lying in a pool of blood. Brothers and sisters, do you want to go back? Or do you want to keep America moving forward?”
- In December 2015, Lewis completely misrepresented the meaning of some remarks that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had made during oral arguments in the contentious affirmative action case of Fisher v. University of Texas, where Scalia had said: “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to [use affirmative action to] get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school … a slower-track school where they do well.” Adding that he was “just not impressed” by contentions that minority enrollment at that university’s Austin campus was lower that it should have been, Scalia said: “I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit [merely for purposes of diversity] as many blacks as possible.” (Hoover Institution scholar Thomas Sowell has pointed out the great harm that is done to black students when they are admitted, under affirmative action, to schools whose normal admissions criteria they do not even come close to fulfilling.) In response to Scalia’s remarks, Lewis — lamenting that Scalia’s “evident bias is very troubling” — said in a statement: “His suggestion that African Americans would fare better at schools that are ‘less advanced’ or on a ‘slow-track’ reminds me of the kind of prejudice that led to separate and unequal school systems — a policy the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional decades ago.”
- In a January 2016 interview, Lewis said that Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump reminded him of the racist governors and police officers of the old Jim Crow South: “I’ve been around a while and Trump reminds me so much of a lot of the things that George Wallace said and did … Sometimes I feel like I am reliving part of my past. I heard it so much growing up in the South…I heard it so much during the days of the civil rights movement. As a people, I just think we could do much better.”
- On November 6, 2018, Lewis told CNN “New Day” host Alisyn Camerota: “[T]he scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in American society.”
Ties to J Street
In January 2017, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) sent a letter asking the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate Michael Collins for serving simultaneously as chief of staff in Lewis’s Washington office and as treasurer of the congressman’s 2016 reelection campaign (a role in which Collins earned $27,495). As the Washington Free Beacon reports, “Ethics rules bar senior House staff from serving in any fiduciary role for a political organization, and specifically mentio[n] campaign treasurers as a prohibited position for such staffers.” The complaint by FACT also targeted Lewis himself, stating: “In this case, not only did Collins directly violate these rules, but Representative Lewis also violated the ethics rules because his own campaign employed Collins in a prohibited position and paid him a prohibited salary.”
Endorsing Keith Ellison for DNC Chair
On the eve of the election for Democratic National Committee chairman in February 2017, Lewis endorsed Rep. Keith Ellison as the “right person” for the job, explaining that Ellison “has the ability and the capacity to inspire people to stand out, to speak up, to speak out.”
Contempt for President Trump and His Policies
In January 2017, Lewis boycotted President-elect Donald Trump’s Inauguration on grounds that Trump was not “a legitimate president.” Specifically, Lewis claimed that Trump was a kind of “Manchurian Candidate” whose recent victory at the polls had been facilitated by the Russian government: “I think the Russians participated in having this man get elected, and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. I don’t plan to attend the Inauguration.… I think there was a conspiracy on the part of the Russians, and others, that helped him get elected. That’s not right. That’s not fair. That’s not the open, democratic process.” “I don’t see the president-elect as a legitimate president,” Lewis added. “I think there was a conspiracy on the part of the Russians, and others, that helped him get elected.”
In June 2018, Lewis told reporters that there could “not be any peace in America” until Trump-administration border agents ceased the practice of separating children from the adult illegal aliens who — claiming to be their parents — took the children with them into the United States. Said Lewis regarding a news report he had seen the previous night about the border separations:
“It made me so sad. I cried last night. When I heard those babies crying. Knowing that young children have been taken from their mothers. Some of these young children may never, ever see their mothers or their fathers again. That’s not right! There cannot be any peace in America until these young children are returned to their parents. It doesn’t matter if we are black or white, Latino, Asian-American or Native-American. We are all one people, one family. We all live in the same house. Not just America’s house, but the world house.” The congressman then assured fellow House Democrat Luis Gutierrez: “I will go to the borders. I’ll get arrested again. If necessary, I’m prepared to go to jail.”
But Lewis’s suggestion that family separation at the border was a policy unique to Trump, was a lie. The policy had its roots in a 1997 court settlement — supplemented by a 2015 federal district court order — requiring the government to release—within 20 days—all children apprehended while crossing the border illegally, whether or not they were accompanied by an adult. “In other words,” the Center for Immigration Studies explained in February 2019: “Now all minors in detention, whether or not they were with their parents, couldn’t be detained for more than three weeks. This ruling laid the groundwork for the current [policy], in which children are released while their parents can still be detained awaiting hearings—hence, the ‘separation’ of families. The alternative is simply releasing the entire family after three weeks or less.” For details about the origins and requirements of the “separation” policy, click here.
In May 2019, Lewis told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that President Trump “feels at home with” acts of racist violence, citing Trump’s comments regarding the Charlottesville riots in August 2017 as evidence. Said Lewis: “I don’t think this president has been helpful. I think he feels at home with what is going on. When he reacted to what was happening in Charlottesville, you know, ‘Good people on both sides,’ I cried. It’s not the America that I dream for, the one I was trying to help set right. It’s not the America we had during the days of President [John F.] Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It’s — it’s different.”
But Lewis’s implication Trump’s remarks were sympathetic to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, was an egregious distortion. In fact, Trump had explicitly, unmistakably, and repeatedly denounced “neo-Nazis,” “KKK,” “white supremacists,” and “white nationalists”—by name—in the course of his remarks in the aftermath of the riots. He had openly described them as “rough, bad people” who “should be condemned totally.” For a detailed explanation of the events in Charlottesville, and of Trump’s comments in proper context, click here.
Supporting Anti-Israel Boycotts
In July 2019, Lewis and fellow Democrat Rashida Tlaib co-sponsored a House Resolution supporting boycotts against Israel and comparing the Jewish state to apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany. Introduced by Ilhan Omar, the Resolution called on House members to oppose “unconstitutional legislative efforts to limit the use of boycotts to further civil rights at home and abroad,” a reference to resolutions that had been passed in several states to prohibit the granting of government contracts to companies that backed the Hamas-inspired Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) movement. Though Tlaib and Omar were both on record as supporters of BDS, Lewis said he opposed that particular initiative.
Illness & Death
In December 2019, Lewis announced that he was undergoing treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He said that despite the diagnosis, he would continue to serve in Congress. Lewis died on July 17, 2020.
For an overview of Lewis’s voting record on a variety of key issues during the course of his legislative career, click here.
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of dozens of prestigious awards and honorary degrees bestowed upon the civil rights icon.
- 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.OpenVault, the blog of the WGBH Media Library and Archives, provides additional details about Lewis’s speech — and about the behind-the-scenes debate regarding its content and tone:
“Behind the scenes, the factions of the civil rights movement—and the Catholic archbishop of Washington and representatives of the White House—battled over what John Lewis would say that day.
“Lewis was the newly elected leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC—called ‘Snick’—sent students and other volunteers into the most violent precincts of the old Confederacy to lead campaigns for voter registration and desegregating public accommodations. SNCC activists were not only younger, but also less patient and more demanding than traditional civil rights activists in the NAACP and SCLC.
“The speech that Lewis gave was a collective effort of SNCC activists. If the nation did not meet the demands of civil rights activists, Lewis said, they would undertake their own ‘March to the Sea,’ a reference to the infamous scorched-earth campaign by General William Sherman from Atlanta to Savannah toward the end of the Civil War. Lewis also rejected President Kennedy’s civil rights legislation as ‘too little and too late,’ mocked calls of liberal allies for patience, and embraced revolution.
“The night before the March, an advance copy of the speech fell into the hands of Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, who showed it to allies in the Kennedy Administration. Incensed by its strong language, O’Boyle demanded that the offending passages be cut from the speech. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Walter Reuther of the UAW, among others, agreed with the critique. For the next 12 hours, the Old Guard battled with the Young Turks over the rhetoric in SNCC’s manifesto.
“After the March leaders reached the Lincoln Memorial, a small group huddled near the statue of Abraham Lincoln to find a compromise. Lewis agreed to strike some of the offending phrases. James Forman, one of SNCC’s leaders, typed a new version that Lewis would give in less than an hour.
“The new speech was every bit as tough and uncompromising as the first. Lewis adopted the battle cry of anticolonial movements in Africa— ‘One Man, One Vote’ —and complained that neither party represented the interests of blacks. He then laid out the job of the movement in the most poetic terms: ‘We shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God.'”
For additional details about the behind-the-scenes angst regarding Lewis’s speech, click here.
To listen to an audio recording of Lewis’s speech that day, click here.
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