Born: February 21, 1940 in Troy, Alabama.
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.
In John Lewis's own words:
"More people were living in Pike County the year I was born than at any time before or since. The 1940 census shows 32,500 residents of the county-roughly double the number living there at the end of the Civil War.
There is no question about the beauty of the place, at least not in my mind. For all the wounds and scars and pain that surround it, this is still home to me. My earliest memories are not of drudgery and labor, oppression and inequality, exclusion and neglect. Those memories would take shape later, as I grew up. But the world I knew as a little boy was a rich, happy one. In the same way that my mother never felt poor as a little girl, I didn't know the meaning of the word when I was small. We were poor-dirt poor-but I didn't realize it.
Sundays we would listen to WRMA, the gospel station. The Pilgrim Travelers, the Soul Stirrers, the five Blind Boys of Mississippi- groups like these were all over gospel radio in the 1940s. A decade later their upbeat, wall-rocking sounds would evolve into something called rhythm and blues. A decade after that it would become the music they called soul. We just loved it
More than anything else-besides work, of course, which became the center of my life as soon as I was big enough to join my parents in the fields-the most important thing in my family's life, and in almost every family's life around us, was church" (Lewis, 17-20).
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.
Where is he now??
John Lewis’s devotion to community service and his abilities and stature as a leader and activist are also reflected in his political career. In 1981 he was elected to the Atlanta City Council, where he pushed for ethics in government and neighborhood preservation. Five years later, in 1986, he was elected to Congress, where he has served for over two decades as the representative for Georgia’s 5thdistrict. Congressman Lewis is currently Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party in the House, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, a member of the Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight.
As Time Magazine noted, Congressman John Lewis’s life and career is “a stirring portrait of the power of moral consistency and courage.” For his bravery and steadfast devotion to human rights, justice, and civil liberties for all Americans, the Tubman African American Museum is proud to present Congressman John Lewis with our first Tubman Lifetime Act of Courage Award.
In his own words:
"By eight I'm in my office, along with my staff, to begin what is typically at least a twelve-hour day. Committee and subcommittee meetings, visits from constituents and lobbyists, a steady stream of receptions and fund-raisers, breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings, television and radio and newspaper interviews and press conferences, and, of course, my duties on the floor of the House itself-these responsibilities fill my days when Congress is in session.
Some of those people never dreamed I would still be in office today. When I was first elected in 1986, there were more than a few skeptics who predicted that I would, as one observer put it, "be ground into paste by Washington's Capitol Hill glue factory." Twelve years later I've been reelected five times and am fortunate enough to have risen to the position of chief deputy Democratic whip, making me one of the highest appointed or elected black officials in the country.
They have also appreciated my ability to build the foundation that every congressman must have, positioning myself to take care of the bread-and-butter needs of my district as well as helping to steer and govern the nation as a whole. It was dealing with this nitty-gritty end of politics, the intricate process of connecting with the light coalitions and getting on the right committees to be able to bring fair share of federal dollars and resources back to my district...." (Lewis, 480-81)
In recent news, Lewis says that he is supporting Obama:
Lewis cited the overwhelming preference for Obama in his Atlanta district as a reason for his change of heart. But he also talked about Obama's campaign as a transformational moment, an opportunity born of Lewis' own sacrifices in the 1960s civil rights movement.
"Something's happening in America, something some of us did not see coming," Lewis said. "Barack Obama has tapped into something that is extraordinary.
"It's a movement. It's a spiritual event," Lewis said of the surging Obama campaign. "It's amazing what's happening."
Lewis had not talked with Obama or Clinton prior to announcing his switch, so it's unclear what role he'll play as the election continues.
"I have not been asked to campaign for Sen. Obama," Lewis said in a statement released later Wednesday. "I support his candidacy for president and will cast my vote for Sen. Obama as a superdelegate at the Democratic convention."
Obama issued a statement Wednesday afternoon, saying, "John Lewis is an American hero and a giant of the civil rights movement, and I am deeply honored to have his support."
Clinton, questioned about Lewis during a satellite interview with Houston television station KTRK, said: "I understand he's been under tremendous pressure. He's been my friend. He will always be my friend. At the end of the day, it's not about who is supporting us, it's about what we're representing, what our positions are, what our experiences and qualifications are, and I think that voters are going to decide."
Lewis' announcement last October that he was backing Clinton, a longtime friend, over Obama, the nation's first truly viable African-American candidate for the presidency, angered many of Georgia's black constituents and numerous civil rights elders who had fought for black voting rights alongside Lewis.
It also created political opposition for Lewis, who has run for Congress unopposed for the past decade. The Rev. Markel Hutchins of Atlanta recently announced his plans to oppose Lewis in this year's Democratic primary because, Hutchins said, Lewis has lost touch with his constituency.
"It was a long, hard, difficult struggle to come to where I am," Lewis said.
At the time he endorsed Clinton, Lewis said, Obama was an unknown and Clinton not only had across-the-board appeal but also was clearly ready to lead the nation.
"I did it because I felt in my heart that I had to support Mrs. Clinton because of our friendship," Lewis said.
"I don't regret it," Lewis added. "The political thing to do would have been to have done nothing, to not endorse anyone.
"Sometimes, you have to be on the right side of history," he said.
Lewis' comments were intended to clear up confusion caused about a week ago when The New York Times reported that he was going to vote for Obama over Clinton as a superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention this summer if neither had enough delegates to declare victory outright. Lewis' office called the report inaccurate but never clarified whom he was supporting.
In an interview Wednesday, Lewis said his decision was an anguishing one.
During his last visit to Selma, Ala., where in 1965 police beat him nearly to death during a protest, Lewis stood between Clinton and Obama and praised the potentially historic election of both.
Former President Bill Clinton attended Lewis' 60th birthday party, but Obama was at his 65th.
With Lewis' switch to Obama -- along with Rep. David Scott, another Atlanta Democrat, who also left Clinton for Obama -- all of Georgia's African-American congressmen are now backing Obama.
Georgia's other congressional Democrats -- Rep. Jim Marshall of Macon and Rep. John Barrow of Savannah -- still have not endorsed either of their party's presidential aspirants.
Wednesday was the 48th anniversary of the day Lewis was arrested for the first time -- at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Nashville that did not serve blacks. And he's now talking about Obama as the heir of the civil rights fight.
"Mr. Obama is the embodiment of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a lot of people," Lewis said. "He represents something different, something new. But he also represents a long line of individuals who come around from time to time who carry the aspirations of the people."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 02/27/08
(By Courtney Beck)