John Lewis

American politician and civil rights leader (1940–2020)

John Lewis (February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020) was an American politician and civil rights leader. He was the U.S. Representative for Georgia's 5th congressional district from 1987, representing much of the city of Atlanta. Lewis, as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was one of the "Big Six" leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He played many key roles in the Civil Rights Movement and its actions to end legalized racial segregation in the United States, including organizing the March 7, 1965 Selma march.

I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive.
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.
Lewis (far right) with James L. Farmer, Jr., William Fitts Ryan, Andrew Young, and Bayard Rustin (R to L, 1965


  • Next time we march we may have to keep going when we get to Montgomery. We may have to on to Washington.
    • Told to New York Times on March 7, 1965 by Lewis, chairman of the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee and organizer of the Selma to Montgomery march after police stopped the demonstrators with violence.
    • As noted on On This Day, BBC. (url accessed on October 22, 2008)
  • I thought I was going to die a few times. On the Freedom Ride in the year 1961, when I was beaten at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, I thought I was going to die. On March 7th, 1965, when I was hit in the head with a night stick by a State Trooper at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death, but nothing can make me question the philosophy of nonviolence.
  • … Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.
    • From "Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America", 2017
  • Our children and their children will ask us what did you do? What did you say? For some this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.
  • I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.


  • Our nation is founded on the principle that we do not have kings. We have presidents. And the Constitution is our compass. When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?' For some, he concluded, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.
  • We were beaten, we were tear-gassed. I thought I was going to die on this bridge. But somehow and some way, God almighty helped me here. We cannot give up now. We cannot give in. We must keep the faith, keep our eyes on the prize.
  • 55 years ago today, we were beaten, tear gassed, and trampled by horses. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die. I don't know how I made it back, but I know we cannot rest. We cannot become weary. We must keep pushing and pulling and find a way to get in the way.
  • I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive.
  • A democracy cannot thrive where power remains unchecked and justice is reserved for a select few. Ignoring these cries and failing to respond to this movement is simply not an option. For peace cannot exist where justice is not served. I urge each and everyone of our colleagues to support this legislation.
  • I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete. — At the 1963 March on Washington


  • He’s right... Rep. Lewis reminds us not just of our duty to continue to fight for a better country — his story reminds us of the transformational change we can achieve when we do. As a young Black civil rights leader, Lewis suffered a head injury on Bloody Sunday fighting for the rights of people like me to vote in our elections.
  • Civil Rights Movement leaders now in positions of power have also lent assistance to the Environmental Justice Movement. For instance, in 1992, Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a prominent participant in the protests of the 1960s, introduced the Environmental Justice Act. Though the Act did not pass Congress, it raised environmental justice issues to a new stature in Washington. Lewis, in speaking about the bill, recognized that "the quest for environmental justice has helped to renew the civil rights movement" through its call for environmental protection as a "right of all, not a privilege for a few."
    • Luke Cole and Sheila Foster From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement (2000) p 21
  • John Lewis eloquently linked racism at home and militarism abroad when he declared, "President Johnson sent soldiers to Vietnam, but he can't send federal troops to protect us in his own country, in Selma."
    • Amy Goodman Democracy Now!: Twenty Years Covering the Movements Changing America (2016)
  • His commitment to the principles of justice, equality, and the power of nonviolent protest should serve as a North Star as we navigate these difficult days...On the day of his funeral, the New York Times published an essay John Lewis wrote shortly before his death. “Democracy is not a state. It is an act…Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”
  • Congressman John Lewis, before his passing, wrote: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.’’ And what he meant was that America’s democracy is not guaranteed. It is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it, to guard it and never take it for granted. And protecting our democracy takes struggle. It takes sacrifice. There is joy in it and there is progress. Because “We The People” have the power to build a better future. And when our very democracy was on the ballot in this election, with the very soul of America at stake, and the world watching, you ushered in a new day for America.
    • Kamala Harris, "To the Women," (7 November 2020), as quoted in Vital Speeches of the Day, 87(1), pp. 4.
  • Another sign of positive change: one young African-American woman, daughter of two SNCC veterans, announced without hesitation: "I'm a lesbian. That doesn't mean I'm not a Black woman." Rejecting the frequent demand for a single identity, she explained, "I want to deal with sexism and homophobia, not just racism." Perhaps a quarter or a third of the room clapped for her comments, but it is impossible to imagine any such openness 30 years ago. We can also be cheered by the fact that Rep. John Lewis, from Georgia, former SNCC chair, spoke against homophobia-strongly and unasked.
  • Rewatching the Freedom Riders documentary, seeing the face of a young John Lewis, and I'm reminded of how so many of the ppl who spit on, cursed at, & assaulted these riders are ppl who are still alive today. Still alive, still voting, still here. None of this was that long ago.
  • When John Lewis, a young Alabama-born SNCC leader, much arrested, much beaten, tried to introduce a stronger note of outrage at the meeting, he was censored by the leaders of the march, who insisted he omit certain sentences critical of the national government and urging militant action.
  • in one important way these young people are very much like the abolitionists of old: they have a healthy disrespect for respectability; they are not ashamed of being agitators and trouble-makers; they see it as the essence of democracy. In defense of William Lloyd Garrison, against the accusation that he was too harsh, a friend replied that the nation was in a sleep so deep "nothing but a rude and almost ruffian-like shake could rouse her." The same deliberate harshness lies behind the activities of James Forman, John Lewis, Bob Moses (activist), and other leaders of SNCC.

See also