2014 SPRING Commencement Speaker
THE HONORABLE CONGRESSMAN Mr. John LEWIS
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 on both sides of the aisle in the
United States Congress.
He has been called "the
conscience of the U.S. Congress,” and Roll Call magazine has said, "John Lewis…is a genuine American hero
and moral leader who commands widespread respect in the chamber.”
He was born the son of sharecroppers on February 21, 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
As a student at Fisk University, John 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. SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activism in
the Movement, including sit-ins and other activities.
While still a young man, John 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, John 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 protestors 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, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of
nonviolence. After leaving SNCC in 1966, he continued his commitment to the
Civil Rights Movement as Associate Director of the Field Foundation and his
participation 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 four million minorities to the voter rolls.
In 1977, John 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.
John 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.
John 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.
John Lewis is the co-author of a #1 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 famous Georgia artist, Bennie Andrews.
He has been interviewed for numerous documentaries, news
broadcasts, and journals, including The
Colbert Report, Morning Joe, the Rachel Maddow Show, the Today show, CNN Headline
News, CNN’s American Morning,
CSPAN’s Washington Journal,
Time Magazine, 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,
magazine, and many more. John Lewis lives in Atlanta, Georgia. He has one
son, John Miles.