2015 Commencement Speaker Biography

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Civil Rights Pioneer

Often called "one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced," John Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he calls "The Beloved Community" in America. His dedication to the highest ethical standards and moral principles has won him the admiration of many of his colleagues and led to him being called "the conscience of the U.S. Congress." 

John Lewis headshot

John Lewis was born the son of sharecroppers in 1940 outside of Troy, Alabama. He grew up on his family's farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. As a young boy, he was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which he heard on radio broadcasts. In those pivotal moments, he made a decision to become a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Ever since then, he has remained at the vanguard of progressive social movements and the human rights struggle in the United States.

As a student at Fisk University, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1961, he volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Lewis risked his life on those rides many times by simply sitting in seats reserved for white patrons. He was also beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South.

During the height of the movement, from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. The SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activism in the movement, including sit-ins and other activities.

While still a young man, Lewis became a nationally recognized leader. By 1963, he was dubbed one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. At the age of 23, he was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963.

In 1964, Lewis coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The following year, Lewis helped spearhead one of the most seminal moments of the Civil Rights Movement. Hosea Williams, another notable Civil Rights leader, and John Lewis led over 600 peaceful, orderly protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. They intended to march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as Bloody Sunday. News broadcasts and photographs revealing the senseless cruelty of the segregated South helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. After leaving SNCC in 1966, he continued his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement by serving as associate director of the Field Foundation and by participating in the Southern Regional Council's voter registration programs. Lewis went on to become the director of the Voter Education Project (VEP). Under his leadership, the VEP transformed the nation's political climate by adding nearly 4 million minorities to the voter rolls.

In 1977, Lewis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency.

In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. While serving on the council, he was an advocate for ethics in government and neighborhood preservation. He was elected to Congress in November 1986 and has served as U.S. Representative of Georgia's Fifth Congressional District since then. He is senior chief deputy whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House, a member of the House Ways & Means Committee, a member of its Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, and Ranking Member of its Subcommittee on Oversight.

Lewis holds a B.A. in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, and he is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville, Tennessee. He has been awarded over 50 honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities throughout the United States, including Harvard University, Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Duke University, Morehouse College, Clark-Atlanta University, Howard University, Brandeis University, Columbia University, Fisk University and Troy State University.

Lewis is the recipient of numerous awards from imminent national and international institutions, including the highest civilian honor granted by President Barack Obama, the Medal of Freedom, the Lincoln Medal from the historic Ford’s Theatre, the Golden Plate Award given by the Academy of Excellence, the Preservation Hero award given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Capital Award of the National Council of La Raza, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, the President’s Medal of Georgetown University, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the National Education Association Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award, and the only John F. Kennedy "Profile in Courage Award" for Lifetime Achievement ever granted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

Lewis is the co-author of the New York Times bestselling graphic novel memoir trilogy MARCH. The first volume, MARCH: Book One, received a 2014 American Library Association (ALA) Coretta Scott King Book Award Author Honor, an ALA Notable Children's Book designation, and was named one of YALSA's 2014 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens. It was named one of the best books of 2013 by USA Today, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, School Library Journal, The Horn Book Review, Paste, Slate, Kirkus Reviews and Booklist, among others. He is also the author of Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, winner of the 2012 NAACP Image Award for Best Literary Work-Biography. His biography is entitled Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. He is also the subject of two other books were written about his life: Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement, by Ann Bausum, and John Lewis in the Lead, by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson, with illustrations by noted Georgia artist Bennie Andrews.

He has been interviewed for numerous documentaries, news broadcasts, and journals, including the The Colbert Report, Morning Joe, the Rachel Maddow Show, the Today show, CNN Headline News, CNN’s American Morning, CSPAN’s Washington Journal, TimeMagazine, Newsweek Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Boston Globe, the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Tribune, Roll Call magazine and many more.

Lewis lives in Atlanta, Georgia. He has one son, John Miles.