2017 Robert F. Kennedy Justice Prize Honoree
Georgia – 5th Congressional District
John R. Lewis, the son of Alabama sharecroppers, was born February 21, 1940, just outside of Troy, Alabama. At that time African Americans in the South were subjected to a humiliating segregation and systematic discrimination and intimidation.
As John Lewis began to hear his calling clearer and clearer he furthered his education by attending the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee and later earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University. As a student his unwavering dynamic influence allowed him to start organizing students and others to join the Civil Rights Movement following the direction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As the movement gained momentum John Lewis joined the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that would be at the forefront of the students against Jim Crow in America.
From the Bus Boycott in Montgomery John Lewis continued to find a way to get in the way. He organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee and volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides across the south, challenging segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. He was arrested more than 40 times, attacked by angry mobs, and severely beaten by the police, often for simply sitting in seats reserved for white patrons.
Serving as the president of the SNCC from 1963 to 1966, John Lewis was recognized as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement along with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins. As a young man he continued the fight against Jim Crow. Lewis helped coordinate and delivered the Keynote address at the March on Washington in August 1963, where Dr. King’s gave the historical “I Have a Dream” speech.
Since the days of Jim Crow, John Lewis has devoted his life to serving his community and his country. He held his first political office in Atlanta City Hall as an Atlanta city council member in 1982. Four years later in 1986, Lewis was elected as the Representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District which encompasses the entire city of Atlanta, and parts of Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties. Often called “one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced,” Congressman John Lewis has dedicated himself to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he calls “The Beloved Community” in America. Today, John Lewis lives in Atlanta, Georgia and is the widower of Lillian Miles. He has one son, John Miles.