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John Lewis, in "Breach of Peace" | by elycefeliz
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John Lewis, in "Breach of Peace"

John Robert Lewis (born February 21, 1940) is the U.S. Representative for Georgia's 5th congressional district, serving since 1987. He was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), playing a key role in the struggle to end segregation. He is a member of the Democratic Party and is one of the most liberal legislators.

 

Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama, the third son of Willie Mae (née Carter) and Eddie Lewis. His parents were sharecroppers. Lewis was educated at the Pike County Training High School, Brundidge, Alabama and also American Baptist Theological Seminary and at Fisk University, both in Nashville, Tennessee, where he became active in the local sit-in movement. As a student he made a systematic study of the techniques and philosophy of nonviolence, and with his fellow students prepared thoroughly for their first actions. He participated in the Freedom Rides to desegregate the South, and was a national leader in the struggle for civil rights. In an interview John Lewis said "I saw racial discrimination as a young child. I saw those signs that said "White Men, Colored Men, White Women, Colored Women."..."I remember as a young child with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins going down to the public library trying to get library cards, trying to check some books out, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for "coloreds." John Lewis followed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Rosa Parks on the radio. He and his family supported the Montgomery bus boycott.

 

John Lewis was an influential SNCC leader and is recognized by most as one of the important leaders of the civil rights movement as a whole. He was a hard-working young man who overcame poverty and political disenfranchisement to educate himself.

 

In 1961, Lewis joined SNCC in the Freedom Rides. Riders traveled the South challenging segregation at interstate bus terminals. Lewis and others received death threats and were severely beaten by angry mobs. In 1963, when Chuck McDew stepped down as SNCC chairman, Lewis was quickly elected to take over. Lewis' experience at that point was already widely respected—he had been arrested 24 times as a result of his activism. He held the post of chairman until 1966.

 

In 1963, Lewis helped plan and took part in the March on Washington. At the age of 23, he was a keynote speaker at the historic event. In 1965, he led 525 marchers across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. State troopers attacked the marchers in a violent incident that later became known as "Bloody Sunday". In 1981, Lewis was elected to his first official government office as an Atlanta City Council member. In 1986, he was elected to Congress, where he is currently serving his 13th term.

 

Historian Howard Zinn wrote: "At the great Washington March of 1963, the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), John Lewis, speaking to the same enormous crowd that heard Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, was prepared to ask the right question: 'Which side is the federal government on?’ That sentence was eliminated from his speech by organizers of the March to avoid offending the Kennedy Administration. But Lewis and his fellow SNCC workers had experienced, again and again, the strange passivity of the national government in the face of Southern violence."

 

In October 2008, Lewis generated significant controversy by issuing a statement criticizing the campaign of John McCain and Sarah Palin and comparing their actions to those of certain segregationists, specifically George Wallace, during the Civil Rights Movement, stating that "What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. [Sarah] Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse." As the controversy surrounding his statements escalated, Lewis quickly re-issued a subsequent statement claiming that he never intended to compare McCain and Palin to Wallace himself, rather that his early statement was simply a "reminder to all Americans that toxic language can lead to destructive behavior."

 

Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders

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Taken on April 14, 2012