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.
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.