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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.
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 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.”
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.”
Lewis commonly accused his political and ideological adversaries of harboring racism in their hearts. Some noteworthy examples:
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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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