John Lewis was born in 1940 in Pike County, Alabama, to sharecropper parents. He attended school in Nashville, Tennessee, and took to public speaking and activism at an early age. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis joined the Civil Rights Movement and became one of the founding figures of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) while attending Fisk University. With SNCC, Lewis led and participated in many peaceful protests against segregation, including sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and Freedom Rides on buses crossing state lines in the south during the early 1960s.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams led hundreds of Black voting rights activists on a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama as a peaceful protest. The procession met a wall of police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge; deeming the march unlawful, police officers unleashed horrendous violence on the marchers. Reporters on the scene documented the violence which shocked the American public. The event, and Lewis’ continued advocacy in the wake of this violence, helped to introduce and move a voting rights bill into Congress.
Lewis’ activism continued in Congress, where he represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for over 30 years. Called the “Conscience of Congress”, Lewis was a proponent of progressive legislation on issues such as gun control, immigration reform, and, as well as civil rights and voting rights.
Hoping to reach a new generation, Lewis wrote a graphic novel series alongside Andrew Aydin with illustrations by Nate Powell. Aimed at young adults, the series March detailed his experiences during the Civil Rights Movement. The series garnered critical acclaim; the final installment received the National Book Award in 2016 and a Coretta Scott King Book Award in 2017. Lewis’ other autobiographical work, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, was co-authored with Mike D’Orso and received the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Christopher Award, and the Lillian Smith Book Award.
Lewis revealed his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer in 2019. In July 2020, John Lewis died at his home in Atlanta after a battle with pancreatic cancer. His funeral procession followed the same route he traveled decades earlier from Selma to Birmingham. The first stop was his hometown of Troy, Alabama final stop was the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where fellow Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. preached during the 1960s. Lewis was honored by lying in state at the United States Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.
He was the first Black lawmaker to ever be honored in this way.