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Congressman John Lewis is a distinguished civil rights leader and current U.S. congressman from Georgia. The images of Lewis being beaten by Alabama State Troopers on "Bloody Sunday" in Selma are etched into the memory of many Americans.
Lewis was born in 1940 outside Troy, Alabama. Lewis grew up on his family's farm and attended segregated public schools. In "Walking with the Wind" Lewis tells of his early oratorical training preaching funerals for the family chickens at the age of four and by the age of five he was delivering nightly sermons to his birds. He was convinced he was a preacher.
By the age of 10 Lewis wanted nothing more than to check out books at the local library. He was disappointed to learn that the library was only for whites. He was thoroughly dejected because all he wanted to do was learn. This episode was to stay with John Lewis for the rest of his life and propel him to his lifelong work of improving the lives of all Americans.
In 1955 he became aware of events in the world around him. The Montgomery Bus Boycott took place only fifty miles from where he lived and the courage of the boycotters encouraged him.
Lewis studied philosophy in school and became a proponent of civil disobedience as practiced by Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi, and King and the boycotters.
In 1959-1960, Lewis organized sit-ins at restaurants and lunch counters in Nashville. Despite the peacefulness of their protest, Lewis and the others were arrested for disorderly conduct. His efforts sparked sit-in movements around the United States.
In 1961, Lewis joined the Freedom Riders to test a Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate travel. In several cities throughout Alabama the riders were met by mobs and beaten. From 1963-66 Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). At the young age of 23 he helped plan the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King gave his "I have a Dream" speech. Lewis served as a keynote speaker at the event as well. In 1964, Lewis and the SNCC moved on to Mississippi to help lead voter registration drives and community action programs.
In 1965 Lewis and Hosea Williams would lead a march that would ignite further change in the laws of the nation. On March 7, 1965 Lewis and Williams led marchers over Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge. When they refused to turn back at the foot of the bridge the marchers were tear gassed and beaten severely by Alabama State Troopers. In later weeks a 2nd short march would be held by religious leaders across the bridge and then the famous Selma to Montgomery March would finally succeed with over 25,000 marchers.
The pictures of Bloody Sunday, as it came to be known, helped lead to the passage in August 1965 of the Voting Rights Act. This act would strike down literacy tests and other discriminatory acts that were preventing blacks and other minorities from exercising their right to vote.
In 1966 Lewis became associate director of the Field Foundation and went on to become director of the Voter Education Project(VEP). Lewis' efforts led to the addition of 4-million minorities to the voter roles.
From 1977-1980, Lewis headed the federal volunteer agency ACTION. In 1980 he moved from there to become community affairs director of the National Consumer Co-op Bank in Atlanta.
He was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981. In 1986 he was elected to Congress representing Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, which includes Atlanta and portions of three surrounding counties.
In the closing of "Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement" Lewis recounts his hope for America. "There is an old African proverb: "When you pray, move your feet." As a nation, if we care for the Beloved Community, we must move our feet, our hands, our hearts, our resources to build and not to tear down, to reconcile and not to divide, to love and not to hate, to heal and not to kill. In the final analysis, we are one people, one family, one house - the American house, the American family.