As our nation honors the work, life, and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we have a special opportunity to also remember one of King’s greatest admirers: Congressman John Lewis.
King and Lewis
This summer, people across our country and around the world mourned the loss of Lewis, who passed away at the age of 80. In 1957, when he was 17 years old, Lewis wrote a letter to his hero, Dr. King, asking for help in securing admission to the all-white Troy State College. The two met shortly after, and King became a profound and inspiring mentor to Lewis. The relationship between King and Lewis was not without challenges, however. In exploring key moments in civil rights movement history, students can critically examine the different approaches of King and Lewis and engage in a more nuanced look at the struggle for equal rights.
In 1961, Lewis and other activists launched the Freedom Rides and were badly beaten by a white mob at the Montgomery, Alabama Greyhound Bus station. Dr. King and other leaders appealed to President Kennedy for help, resulting in the deployment of the National Guard to protect the Freedom Riders, churches, and Black residences in Montgomery. King and Lewis also worked closely together in 1961 and 1962 on a campaign to end segregation in Albany, Georgia.
At other moments in history, King and Lewis had differing opinions about how to engage a nation in the work of securing equal rights for Black Americans. At the 1963 March on Washington, Lewis, the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was invited to speak. His original speech was deemed too controversial by March on Washington leaders, including Dr. King, and Lewis was directed to give an edited version of his remarks.
Students can examine both versions of Lewis’s remarks and discuss why the decision was made to deliver the final version.
Both Dr. King and John Lewis are remembered for organizing the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, a turning point for the civil rights movement. However, their respective organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had opposing views on the March for Voting Rights’ objectives and how to best align their groups.
Students can engage in a comparative analysis of sources about the March for Voting Rights, and discuss what each tells us about SCLC/SNCC tensions.
Background information and interview with John Lewis:
Article from the Roosevelt Institute of American Studies: https://www.roosevelt.nl/selma-montgomery-march-view-inside
One of the most enduring and important elements of the relationship between King and Lewis was their shared vision and commitment to nonviolence. Inspired by the work of Mahatma Gandhi and others, King espoused the importance of nonviolence as a persuasive tactic to effect change. Throughout his life, Lewis followed King’s “Six Principles of Nonviolence” and continued to speak and write about nonviolence as well as King’s “Beloved Community” philosophy.
After reviewing the “Six Principles of Nonviolence,” students can analyze key moments in civil rights movement history and discuss why engagement of the Principles was effective.
John Lewis regularly honored the role that Dr. King played in his life and, in 2005, penned an essay titled My Hero. In it, Lewis states:
“We have come a long way in America because of Martin Luther King Jr. He led a disciplined, nonviolent revolution under the rule of law, a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a distance to go before all of our citizens embrace the idea of a truly interracial democracy…the Beloved Community, a nation at peace with itself.”
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! May we all strive to build and sustain the Beloved Community.