I’m wonderfully haunted by an image of John Lewis stepping off the Freedom Rider’s bus—but not in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the first time he was attacked as he left the bus. I think of him in Montgomery, Alabama, as he rode into town with his head and ribs still aching from Rock Hill. This time, another white mob was waiting with the full intention of drawing blood. He knew precisely what would happen; yet he stepped off that bus and soon absorbed a beating that left him unconscious. Nonviolence sounds great as an ideal philosophy, but Lewis embodied it in a way that I will never forget. If I ever I have to face such a moment, I pray his example will guide me.
John Lewis (b. 1940)
We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal … We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back.
In Rock Hill, John Lewis calmly stepped off a bus and into a savage beating. Lewis was one of the Freedom Riders, an integrated team of civil rights activists who were challenging the laws in the American South that segregated interstate buses and bus terminal waiting rooms. A crowd of about 20 or 30 young white men was waiting at the Rock Hill bus station in South Carolina. Lewis was the first to exit the bus, and he went down almost immediately under a hail of blows. He was bleeding and his ribs were racked with stabbing pain.
Born to a sharecropping family in Alabama, Lewis left the family farm to study at Fisk University in Nashville. He had listened to Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio during the days of the Montgomery bus boycott, so he quickly gravitated to the student activists pulled together by James Lawson. The students in Nashville launched a movement of lunch counter sit-ins. Black and white students would sit together at the counters of the downtown stores where they were first ignored, then harassed, beaten and arrested. Lewis had been afraid of jail, but he was prepared for the experience by the extensive role-plays Lawson used in pre-action training. Lewis said of his experience going to jail to confront injustice, “I had never had that much dignity before … It was exhilarating—it was something I had earned, the sense of the independence that comes to a free person.” After months of sit-ins, marches and a boycott, the mayor and business leaders gave in, and the lunch counters were desegregated.
The Nashville movement provided leadership for the broader civil rights movement as many of the student activists became the well-trained, focused and committed leaders who could do the hard work of organizing and the risky work of serving on the front lines of the struggle. The next call to action came when the Congress of Racial Equality organized the Freedom Ride. Lewis joined the ride at the beginning, and was the first casualty when he was beaten in Rock Hill, South Carolina. At that point, he needed to recover, so the Freedom Riders went on without him.
Then the action stalled in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, when one bus was burned and riders were so badly beaten that many were hospitalized. Lewis, still bandaged from his first beating, was determined that the Freedom Ride must continue. He called his friends from the Nashville movement. The cost of their involvement was evident from photos in newspapers—but they knew that this was the moment in the struggle when nonviolence was crucial in order to confront the violence of bigotry and legalized injustice.
Lewis led the next stage of the Freedom Ride, leaving out of Birmingham. When the bus got to Montgomery, Lewis was again first off the bus. This time, there were reporters to greet him, but moments later a mob of more than 200 people surged around the corner of the bus station attacking Freedom Riders and the media with clubs and bats. Lewis and his white bus-mate Jim Zwerg were beaten unconscious. Four days later, Lewis was on another bus crossing into Mississippi. There, the Freedom Riders were arrested and held for six weeks in sweltering jail cells full of bugs and rodents and with open toilets. Lewis and some of the other riders were sent to the maximum-security wing of the notorious Mississippi prison known as Parchman Farm. The courage and sacrifice of Lewis and other Freedom Riders brought pressure on the federal government to finally enforce desegregated interstate travel for all people.
To coordinate the organizing of young people for the civil rights movement, Lewis helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was named the first chairman. Even though he was only 23 years old, he joined the other top leaders as a major shaper of the movement. He helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and was a keynote speaker along with Dr. King.
In 1964, Lewis led the SNCC voter registration campaign in Mississippi during the “Freedom Summer” that brought students from around the country to register black voters. The next year, he was in the front row as one of the leaders of 600 marchers heading from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery to campaign for voting rights. The marchers were attacked by state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in an action that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis and the marchers had just begun to kneel and pray in front of the lines of police, when the police charged. Lewis was again savagely beaten with a police baton. He lost consciousness and suffered a fractured skull. A photo of his beating was published around the nation. The next day Lewis checked himself out of the hospital, and with his head swathed in bandages, gave a press conference saying the march would continue. The courage of the nonviolent activists who suffered under the brutality of the police propelled the nation to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lewis stood in the Oval Office as President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law.
Though he was arrested more than 40 times and severely beaten again and again, Lewis remained a proponent of nonviolence. As a faction of the SNCC turned from nonviolence to an angry philosophy of “black power,” Lewis was forced out of SNCC leadership. He left the organization to work in voter registration and education, believing that the empowerment of African-Americans through political enfranchisement was the way to permanently change the structures of racial injustice.
In 1981, Lewis ran for office and won a seat on the Atlanta City Council. Then in 1986, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he has served for over 20 years. Lewis continues as a voice of conscience for economic and racial justice.
Meet more peacemakers like John Lewis
This profile on John Lewis comes from the pages of my book, Blessed are the Peacemakers. Blessed are the Peacemakers is one of the three books that inspired this website. Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.