We Remember Civil Rights Legend John Lewis

Today’s post comes from Miriam Kleiman, Public Affairs Specialist at the National Archives.

There is perhaps no single figure whose own life and career embodies the promise, success, and continued challenges of civil rights for Black Americans than John Lewis. We mourn this tremendous loss and look back on his incredible history through our holdings dating back to the early 1960s, including the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and “Bloody Sunday,” the first March from Selma to Montgomery. 

Representative John Lewis talking with a Somali child during Operation Restore Hope, 1993. (National Archives Identifier 6508426)

Representative Lewis spent his life fighting for human rights and civil liberties and working to create a more perfect union. The son of sharecroppers, he grew up on his family’s Alabama farm and attended segregated public schools. As a child, he was inspired by Reverend Martin Luther King, whom he heard on his family’s home radio.

As a college student, he participated in the sit-in demonstrations at the segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee, and became Chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organizing students and grassroots campaigners throughout the South. 

March on Washington

By age 23, Lewis was a leading civil rights crusader and was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders who risked their lives by riding buses across the South, challenging the nation’s segregation laws. He led SNCC voter registration drives during the Mississippi “Freedom Summer.” He helped organize and was a keynote speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington. 

In his oral history for the JFK Library, Lewis described his meeting with JFK before the March on Washington:

It was in this meeting . . . somehow out of the blue A. Philip Randolph says something like, “Mr. President, the black masses are restless,” in his baritone voice. “The black masses are restless, and we’re going to march on Washington.” And you could tell by the body language of President Kennedy, he just sort of moved and twisted and turned in his chair, he didn’t necessarily like what he heard. And he said, “Mr. Randolph, if you bring a lot of people to Washington, won’t there be a crisis, disorder, chaos? And we would never be able to get a civil rights bill through the Congress.” And Mr. Randolph responded and said, “Mr. President, this will be an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protest.” And President Kennedy sort of said, “Well, I think we’re going to have problems. But we all have problems, and we can solve those problems.

JFK meeting with leaders of the March on Washington August 28, 1963. (National Archives Identifier 194276)

At 23, Lewis was the youngest speaker at the March and was the last remaining living speaker. His remarks at the March echo in today’s Black Lives Matter movement: 

By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall send a desegregated South into a thousand pieces, put them together in the image of God and Democracy. We must say wake up America, wake up! For we cannot stop and we will not and cannot be patient. . . .

We are tired. We are tired of being beat by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again, and then you holler “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. 

We do not want to go to jail, but we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood and true peace. 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 a revolution is complete. . . .

You can view The March, the film documenting the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was restored by the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab.

The March (1963, restored)

March from Selma to Montgomery, March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday”

On March 7, 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement, Lewis and Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), along with other civil rights leaders, organized and led a march for voting rights from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. On March 7, hundreds of people assembled at a downtown church, knelt in prayer, and started walking through the city streets.

As they were leaving Selma, at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were confronted by 150 Alabama state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, and possemen, who issued a two-minute warning and ordered the demonstrators to disperse.

One minute and five seconds after the two-minute warning, the troops advanced, wielding clubs, bullwhips, and tear gas. John Lewis, who suffered a skull fracture, was one of 58 people injured.  

Two-minute warning on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. (National Archives Identifier 16899041)

Just five days later, Lewis recounted the attack during a Federal hearing at which the demonstrators sought protection for a full-scale march to Montgomery.

Statement of John Lewis regarding Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” March 8, 1965. (Records of the FBI, National Archives)

The violent beatings, captured on national television, provoked outrage and galvanized public and congressional support to prohibit racial discrimination in balloting. Ironically, the attack that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 took place on a bridge named for Confederate General and Alabama KKK member and Grand Dragon Edmund W. Pettus. The National Archives holdings include his Confederate military record.  

Each year, Lewis returned to the bridge to commemorate the anniversary of the March. 

The National Archives Eyewitness: American Originals from the National Archives exhibit featured a section on the March. Lewis spoke at the opening event and visited the traveling exhibition.

John Lewis passed away on July 17, 2020.

Explore additional National Archives records about this Civil Rights legend and his lasting legacy:

2 thoughts on “We Remember Civil Rights Legend John Lewis

  1. Thank you for this. When I made Sisters of Selma (PBS 2007) I had a hard time locating archival material on the Selma marches of 1965. This will make the work of researchers easier.

  2. He will be sadly missed, his tenacity in getting thing done. What an honor to have know him and to watch him all though the years. He fought the good fight as he made down thought the years good trouble. RIP our hero!!

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