The Honorable John R. Lewis

In 1965 John R. Lewis and other peaceful protestors were brutally attacked by state troopers during a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. This event, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” played a pivotal role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For over two decades, Representative Lewis led a congressional pilgrimage to Selma—and other cities across the state—to reflect on the civil rights movement.

Featured Audio

"Making Their Voices Heard"

"Making Their Voices Heard"
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
The Honorable John R. Lewis describes the potential for popular protest to shape decisions on Capitol Hill.
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
Interview recorded December 11, 2014 Deed of Gift

Abstract & Transcript

U.S. Representative of Georgia (January 3, 1987-July 17, 2020)

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, John R. Lewis led hundreds of marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to oppose voting restrictions against African Americans in the South. When the peaceful protestors refused to disperse, state troopers advanced on foot and on horse, brutally assaulting the crowd using tear gas and batons. Lewis suffered violent blows to the head from a trooper. Congress’ swift but overdue legislative response to what became known as “Bloody Sunday” produced the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

For years afterwards, Lewis returned to Selma on his own to reflect on the protest march. He formalized these visits while serving as a Representative from Georgia by leading an annual congressional pilgrimage to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and other civil rights landmarks in Alabama. In this oral history—conducted months before the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday—Lewis recalls the violence inflicted on him and others that day and the event’s historic role in changing American democracy. He describes the partnership with the Faith and Politics Institute, which has organized the annual trip since 1998, and the reason he considers the visit a pilgrimage. He discusses the personal importance of returning year after year.

Lewis recounts other experiences of the 1960s civil rights movement as well, including the march from Selma to Montgomery following his assault in 1965, the signing ceremony for the Voting Rights Act, and the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He details his involvement in Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and how it ultimately led to his own run for Congress. In this interview, Lewis explains the effect his time in the movement has had on his approach to legislating. He asserts that civil disobedience—what he called “good trouble” throughout his congressional career—has a critical place in the political process and expresses hope that his fellow lawmakers understand the importance of protest when they visit Selma.

This interviewee appears in the following projects: The Long Struggle for Representation: Oral Histories of African-Americans in Congress, Bridging History: Selma and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Documentary, and Institutional Interviews.

Biography

LEWIS, JOHN R., A Representative from Georgia; born in Troy, Pike County, Ala., February 21, 1940; attended Pike County Training School, Brundidge, Ala.; B.A., American Baptist Theological Seminary, Nashville, Tenn., 1961; B.A., Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn., 1967; chairman, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 1963-1966; director of ACTION, 1977-1980; community affairs director, National Consumer Co-op Bank, Atlanta, 1980-1986; member of the Atlanta, Ga., city council, 1982-1986; elected as a Democrat to the One Hundredth and to the sixteen succeeding Congresses, and served until his death (January 3, 1987-July 17, 2020); died on July 17, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia; lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, July 27-28, 2020.

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Audio

Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
The Honorable John R. Lewis recounts what took place on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama.
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
Interview recorded December 11, 2014 Deed of Gift

"The Marching Feet of a Determined People"

"The Marching Feet of a Determined People"
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S.Representative of Georgia
The Honorable John R. Lewis describes the relationship between social movements and civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S.Representative of Georgia
Interview recorded December 11, 2014 Deed of Gift

"Making Their Voices Heard"

"Making Their Voices Heard"
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
The Honorable John R. Lewis describes the potential for popular protest to shape decisions on Capitol Hill.
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
Interview recorded December 11, 2014 Deed of Gift

"We're Seekers"

"We're Seekers"
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S.Representative of Georgia
The Honorable John R. Lewis stresses the importance of visiting Selma and other sites of historic struggle as an act of remembrance as well as rejuvenation.
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S.Representative of Georgia
Interview recorded December 11, 2014 Deed of Gift

"Be Consistent and Be Persistent"

"Be Consistent and Be Persistent"
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S.Representative of Georgia
The Honorable John R. Lewis recalls the way his dedication to the civil rights movement shaped his career as a legislator in Congress.
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S.Representative of Georgia
Interview recorded December 11, 2014 Deed of Gift

Kennedy Brothers

Kennedy Brothers
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
The Honorable John R. Lewis describes his admiration of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
Interview recorded December 11, 2014 Deed of Gift

Kennedy Presidential Campaign: Part One

Kennedy Presidential Campaign: Part One
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
The Honorable John R. Lewis details his involvement in Senator Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign and the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
Interview recorded December 11, 2014 Deed of Gift

Kennedy Presidential Campaign: Part Two

Kennedy Presidential Campaign: Part Two
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
The Honorable John R. Lewis explains his passion for Senator Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign and his decision to run for Congress after Senator Kennedy's death.
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
Interview recorded December 11, 2014 Deed of Gift

"Right to Dissent"

"Right to Dissent"
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
The Honorable John R. Lewis explains the importance of protest in the political process.
The Honorable John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative of Georgia
Interview recorded December 11, 2014 Deed of Gift

Images & Artifacts

John Lewis, 1964
<i>John Lewis, 1964</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_lewis_microphone.xml
John Lewis spoke at an American Society of Newspaper Editors meeting at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
"Bloody Sunday"
<i>"Bloody Sunday"</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_lewis_troopers.xml
Police used force against peaceful protesters on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama. John Lewis (on ground, left center, in light coat) went to the hospital after suffering a head injury from a state trooper.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
March to Montgomery
<i>March to Montgomery</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_lewis_bridge.xml
On March 21, 1965, two weeks after "Bloody Sunday," protesters crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge without police interference and continued to the state capital.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Representative Lewis
<i>Representative Lewis</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_lewis_portrait.xml
John Lewis photographed in the middle of his congressional career.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
Congressional Pilgrimage to Alabama
<i>Congressional Pilgrimage to Alabama</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_lewis_podium.xml
Representative Lewis addressed a crowd during the 2014 congressional pilgrimage to Alabama.
Image courtesy of the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives
Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge
<i>Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_lewis_pilgrimage2014.xml
A crowd participated in the annual march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 2014.
Image courtesy of the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives
Marching Together
<i>Marching Together</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_lewis_members.xml
Representative Lewis and his congressional colleagues marched together during the 2014 congressional pilgrimage.
Image courtesy of the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives