John R. Lewis
The following biographical sketch was compiled at the time of induction into the Academy in October 2011, and updated in 2020.
John Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, in rural Pike County, Alabama, near Troy. The third son of sharecroppers Eddie and Willie Mae Lewis, he grew up on his family’s farm and attended Pike County public schools. He earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University and graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee.
During his youth, Lewis was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., which he heard on radio broadcasts. While a theological student, he organized nonviolent sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville and later challenged the legality of interstate segregated buses by leading the Freedom Rides in the summer of 1961. During the height of the Movement, from 1963-1966, Lewis was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. At the age of 23, he organized other peaceful forms of resistance, including registering thousands of black voters in Mississippi during the summer of 1964.
Lewis also had a leading role in one of the most pivotal events of the Civil Rights Movement, the Selma-to-Montgomery march. On March 7, 1965, he was in the front ranks of six hundred peaceful marchers who were beaten back by state troopers and sheriff’s deputies when they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, an event that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The incident led to passage by the United States Congress of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lewis remained active nationally in civil rights issues and settled in Atlanta. Elected to Congress in 1986, he represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District and was the longest-serving member of the state’s congressional delegation.
He was the recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and of numerous honors and recognitions for his lifelong commitment to the defense of civil and human rights. Earlier this year, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Lewis maintained an active interest in issues in his native state of Alabama and was a key figure in the designation of the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail. He was married to the late Lillian Miles, with whom he had one son, John Miles.
Lewis died on July 17, 2020.