John Lewis Matthew louie


John Lewis is one of the "Big Six Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement". During the movement, Lewis was a chairman for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was first inspired to join the movement because of Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons. Additionally, his upbringing was a motivating factor in his inspiration to join the movement. An important part of Lewis’ childhood was his job to care for the family chickens. This job gave him compassion and other characteristics that were important for his participation in the movement. Also it gave him a understanding of the injustices in the world.

Here, Lewis (front, center) is leading a march of 500 people over the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery. This march was in support of voting rights. They were stopped by volunteers and police who ordered to disperse. When they didn't, the police and volunteers beat the protesters using whips, billy clubs, and tear gas. 80 protesters sustained injuries and among the injured was Lewis who suffered a fractured skull. This incident was televised and brought attention to the movement.

Bloody Sunday (Lewis is at the front with the trench coat)

Why Lewis was a catalyst of change

Lewis’ actions made it clear that he was a large catalyst for the movement. Lewis, while only 19, organized events and led events including sit ins, freedom rides, and marches. Lewis was determined to continue through the movement at all costs. Lewis saw many people around him get injured along with himself. Despite of this, Lewis believed in taking action and standing up against the unjust instead of sitting around and waiting for something to happen. He also believed that a leader must be amongst the people and he followed this. Lewis knew he had to be out leading the crowd as opposed to talking with no action.

Here 19 year old John Lewis is pictured with another freedom rider, James Zwerg, after they were beaten by a mob that stopped and beat them on their freedom ride on May 20, 1961. Only a few days before, May 14th, 1961, a freedom bus was set ablaze. Knowing this, Lewis and others still decided to go on the freedom ride. This clearly demonstrates how Lewis was a catalyst for change as he was only 19 when this happened and had his whole life ahead of him. Instead, he chose to take action to fight in what he believed in.

Historical Context

The Civil Rights Movement was from 1865 to 1945 this was the time where Lewis was the most active. Congress was successful in several amendments that gave rights to African Americans most importantly the 13th amendment, abolishment of slavery; the 14th amendment, citizenship for African Americans; and the 15th, the right for African Americans to vote. Although these amendments were put in place, there were still people in opposition of the rights of African Americans and believed in white supremacy. These people instituted Jim Crow laws which were on the basis of “separate but equal”. The laws weren’t fair and clearly biased towards whites with the facilities much cleaner and new unlike the “colored” facilities which were rundown and poorly maintained. An inciting point of the Civil Rights Movement. Poverty levels during this time were also higher for African Americans than others during this time period.

The graph above is a simple comparison of poverty levels of African Americans compared to others. This emphasizes the struggles of African Americans during this time economically.

"Separate but equal" was the loop hole white supremacists found to segregate African Americans. The segregated facilities were clearly unequal. Those of African Americans were run down, poorly maintained, and almost inhumane.


The main issues that Lewis was fighting against were racial segregation, unfair treatment of African Americans, and African American suffrage.

These statistics accentuate how African Americans are clearly underprivileged compared to whites of this time. This connects to the unfair treatment of African Americans during this time.

Racial segregation was everywhere during the Civil Rights Movement including but not limited to buses, lunch counters, schools, waiting rooms, etc. Segregation was based off of the idea of "separate but equal". The idea was that this allowed for the separation of races because everyone has the things however, they are just not in the same place. In direct contrast the actual separate facilities were clearly not equal. Facilities for whites were far cleaner, newer, and overall better. Lewis put this problem at the forefront of his goal because this is breaking the law and it needs to be enforced. If no one does anything about it, nothing will change. Lewis stated this in his speech at the March on Washington.

Lewis' speech at the March on Washington (4:50-6:53)

Unfair Treatment of African Americans was another problem Lewis was fighting against. During this time, the Ku Klux Klan was at its peak and hindered African Americans as they beat, threatened, and killed them. Additionally, police brutality was also present as many of the police force were in support of white supremacy in the south. An example of this is Bloody Sunday where Lewis and other protesters were walking to Montgomery where they were trying to register to vote. They were met by police and a militia that beat them and caused many injuries including a fractured skull to Lewis. Lewis made this a priority because African Americans are still citizens and they are still being treated like second class citizens.

African American Suffrage (right to vote) was another problem that Lewis fought for. During this time, African Americans were not allowed to vote and the South made it so there was little chance that they would for a while. White southerners used several different tactics to make sure African Americans were not allowed to vote. These included literacy tests, poll taxes, and poll intimidation. Literacy tests were not tests for actual literacy but another reason to not allow African Americans to vote. They included impossible problems that couldn’t be answered in order to not allow African Americans to vote (Ex. How many grains of sand do I have in my hand?). Poll taxes was another tactic to not allow African Americans to vote. The cost of the Poll Tax was extremely high which very few African Americans could afford. Finally, poll intimidation was a very strong tactic used to stop African Americans from voting. Many were scared of losing their jobs, being evicted, and other things that could have ruined their life if they were to vote. Lewis even said in an interview, “My own mother, my own father, my grandfather and my uncles and aunts could not register to vote because each time they attempted to register to vote, they were told they could not pass the literacy test. And many people were so intimidated, so afraid that they would lose their jobs - they would be evicted from the farms - they almost gave up” (Lewis, 2016). The Great Depression made it so African Americans understood that they could have an impact in politics

Leadership Characteristics

Lewis possessed many critical characteristics which made him a very successful leader in the Civil Rights Movement. A majority of his leadership characteristics were learned young when he had to care for his family chickens which he claimed shaped him.

Faith is a vital characteristic of Lewis in order for him to be successful in the Civil Rights Movement. Lewis was a Baptist Christian which taught him non violence and peace which was necessary for his participation in the Civil Rights Movement that was predominantly a nonviolent movement.

Patience was a characteristic Lewis had. He gained this characteristic through caring for his chickens. He had to constantly care for them and do many things such as wake up early, collect their eggs, clean their housing which took a lot of time. Connecting this to the movement, Lewis was patient in the success of the movement. He understood that it would not be an overnight success and he remained persistent in fighting for the movement in the face of adversity.

Civil Disobedience like other characteristics Lewis had were based off of the chickens he cared for. When his parents killed the chickens which he was so attached to, he would be mad and not talk to them and not eat the chicken because he was so close. He would go to be hungry because of this. Very similarly, his nonviolent protesting when he was young reflects his protests during the Civil Rights Movement.

Responsibility and Discipline are two other characteristics that Lewis had from tending to the chickens. Lewis learned There was things that he had to do and there was no way around certain things and they have to be done correctly or not at all. Additionally, he had to be responsible for the chickens improper care would result in the chickens easily dying off from predators or other factors. This also made Lewis a good leader because he knew that a leader must be amongst the people they are leading as opposed to being put on a higher level.

John Lewis Now

Lewis continues his fight for the unjust now using almost the same tactics as he did during the Civil Rights Movement. He is now a Congressman for Georgia and has aired his opinions on politics and other current events.


Main Source

Lewis, J., & D'Orso, M. (2015). Walking with the wind: a memoir of the movement. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

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