B&W photo of men in suits standing in front of lincoln statue
Young John Lewis (center) is surrounded by fellow speakers and organizers of the March on Washington

US Information Agency; NARA: 542056

Quick Facts

Significance:
Congressman, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
Place of Birth:
Troy, Alabama
Date of Birth:
February 21, 1940

John R. Lewis was one of the youngest leaders during the height of the civil rights movement and is the only keynote speaker from the 1963 March on Washington still living. Lewis became an activist while attending Fisk University in Nashville, TN. During this time he became an adherent of non-violent philosophy and organized sit-ins at local diners. In 1960, Lewis, along with students from other universities across the country, founded the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Throughout the early 1960s, Lewis worked with SNCC conducting voter registration efforts and demonstrations throughout the South. Lewis often endured severe physical violence at the hands of segregationists while participating in demonstrations, earning him a reputation as one of the movement’s most courageous leaders.

In 1963, Lewis was selected to head SNCC, a position he held through 1966. Lewis was a planner and platform speaker for the 1963 March on Washington. Only 23 at the time, he was the youngest person to speak at the event. Lewis’ commitment to non-violence would be tested the following year as he and hundreds of protesters were brutally attacked by police as they attempted to march peacefully across the Pettis bridge in Selma, AL, in what would be known as Bloody Sunday. The event, which received wide media coverage, showed the cruelty and brutality of segregation in the South and helped hasten passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Lewis became active in politics during the 1970s, and has served as a member of Congress since 1987.