John Robert Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama in 1940. He was the third of ten children in a family of sharecroppers.  At the age of four, Lewis received a Bible from his uncle, and by the age of five, he dreamed of becoming a preacher. One of his favorite childhood memories was walking around the farm delivering sermons to the family’s chickens. As a teenager, he heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preach on the radio and recognized the power ministers had to challenge injustice and spur people to action.  He also recognized that his local pastor was not speaking about the inequity and injustice that African Americans were experiencing the way King was and he was urged to seek change.  Further motivated by the impact of Emmett Till’s murder and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, Lewis was inspired Lewis to take action in the movement for civil rights.  He started by petitioning the local library for a public library card as African Americans were not allowed to have one. Then, the teenage Lewis joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He soon was completely devoted to being a force for change.

John Lewis, top left, was among the Freedom Riders who were arrested in Jackson, Miss., in May 1961, and hastily convicted of breach of peace. Credit…Mississippi Department of Archives and History

In 1957, with the help of Dr. Martin Luther King, attorney Fred Gray, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Lewis attempted to desegregate Troy College (now Troy University). Even though he had high-profile support, he was dissuaded by his parents, who feared for his safety and told him to “keep quiet.” That, however, did not deter his commitment to change-making. During his enrollment at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, Lewis began training in nonviolent protest and helped organize test sit-ins locally, preparing for the lunch counter sit-ins they staged in 1960. Lewis was accepted as a Freedom Rider with Congress of Racial Equity (CORE) to help integrate interstate travel throughout the South. During the trip, he was violently beaten in Rock Hill, South Carolina, arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, and imprisoned at the notorious Parchman Prison in Sunflower County, Mississippi. He was undeterred in his struggle for equal rights. After graduating from American Baptist Theological Seminary, he attended Fisk University, where he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and by 1963, he is elected as its chairman. 

John Lewis' Legacy

Just like the work of the Civil Rights Movement was not done in the 1960s, neither was Lewis’. After an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1977, Lewis obtained a seat on the Atlanta City Council and worked to pursue equality from that position.  He finally became a member of Congress in 1986 and served in the House of Representatives until he died in July of 2020. His work in Congress was marked by his refusal to make decisions based solely on party loyalties. His focus on achieving true democracy was unwavering, no matter the obstacles.  

Benny Andrews, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking (John Lewis Series), 2005, Oil and collage on paper, 22 in. x 30 in, The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, 2019

Beyond his work as an elected official, Lewis found other ways to impart change and to share the work he and his counterparts did to assist people in causing “good trouble” for the benefit of future generations.  Lewis authored and co-authored many books including March, a trilogy of autobiographical graphic novels, which recount Lewis’ experiences in the Civil Rights Movement. This series was intended to impact young people, just as Lewis had been impacted by the work and activism of others in his youth. In March of 2020, a few months before his passing, Lewis attended a reenactment of the Selma bridge crossing. He urged young people to take up the mantle and continue the work noting that “I’m not going to give up, I’m not going to give in” and they should not either. 

John Robert Lewis’ legacy continues to grow though he has passed on.  His words are referenced and republished daily; his efforts to provide voting access and law enforcement reforms in his district are being championed by emerging leaders; and his insistence that we speak up and do something when we see injustice still inspires.   

“Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.”–John Lewis on movement-building in Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America 

About Benny Andrews

Benny Andrews, Preaching to the Chicken (John Lewis Series), 2005, Oil and collage on paper, 22 in. x 30 in, The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, 2019

Benny Andrews (b. 1930, d. 2006) was a celebrated African American painter, printmaker, and collage artist. Born to sharecroppers in Plainview, Georgia, he went on to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before finding success in New York City. His narrative works documented social and political themes of the times, including depictions of the American Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, personal and familial narratives, and the relocation of American Indians. He later illustrated children’s books about the lives of prominent figures in Black history including his friend Congressman John Lewis. The John Lewis Series was one of his final bodies of work. The National Center for Civil and Human Rights is proud to steward this collection.

“For Benny, there was no line where his activism ended, and his art began. To him, using his brush and his pen to capture the essence and spirit of his time was as much an act of protest as sitting-in or sitting-down was for me.” – John Lewis

In Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Congressman John Lewis

Friday, July 30th

10AM Tributes and Mural Rededication

John Lewis Hero Mural

219 Auburn Ave NW, Atlanta

11AM Community-Wide Moment of Reflection

John Lewis Hero Mural

219 Auburn Ave NW, Atlanta

12-4PM Learning and Celebration

Throughout Downtown Atlanta Begins

Woodruff Park

91 Peachtree Street NW, Atlanta

2PM Panel Discussion: The Boy from Troy

Auburn Avenue Research Library

10 Auburn Ave NE, Atlanta

All-Day FREE Admission

National Center for Civil and Human Rights

100 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd NW, Atlanta

For more information visit reimaginethelegacy.com.