Civil Rights Leader, Congressman to Deliver MLK Keynote Address

Civil Rights giant and U.S. Congressman John Lewis (D – Ga.) will speak at the Martin Luther King Convocation at North Carolina Central University on Jan. 13. The convocation will begin at 9:45 a.m. in the McDougald–McLendon Gymnasium. It is part of a weeklong observance honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lewis has been called “one of the most courageous persons the civil rights movement ever produced” and has dedicated his life to protecting human rights and securing civil liberties. As a student at Fisk University, Lewis organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn. In 1961, he participated in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Despite being beaten by angry mobs and arrested by police, Lewis continued to defy and fight against the injustice of Jim Crow legislation.

In 1963, he was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the organization largely responsible for shaping student activism in the civil rights movement, including voter registration drives and community action programs. Dubbed one of the “Big Six” leaders of the movement along with Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer and Roy Wilkins, he was the architect and keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August of 1963. Lewis was just 23 years old.

In 1965, Lewis led 600 peaceful protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. Their intention was to march from Selma to Montgomery. At the far end of the bridge, they were met by nearly 200 Alabama state troopers, who brutally attacked the protesters, and one man, James J. Reeb of Boston, was killed. The event became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Photographs of beaten protesters and news coverage captured the brutal confrontation; a week later President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a televised speech before Congress in which he denounced the assault. Two days later, Johnson sent the Voting Rights bill to Congress.

The Voting Rights Act, signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965, empowered the federal government to oversee voter registration and elections in counties that had used tests to determine voter eligibility or where registration or turnout had been less than 50 percent in the 1964 presidential election. It also banned discriminatory literacy tests and expanded voting rights for non-English speaking Americans.

Lewis remained a devoted advocate of nonviolence, despite more than 40 arrests, attacks and injuries. He later served as director of the Voter Education Project, which added nearly 4 million minorities to the voter rolls.

In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council and in 1986 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the city of Atlanta and parts of Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties. He is a member of the House leadership as senior chief deputy whip, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, the Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support and chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight. He has been called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress” by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Lewis is a graduate of Fisk University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy, and American Baptist Theological Seminary. He has received more than 50 honorary degrees and numerous awards, including the only John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement ever granted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. In 1998, he published an autobiography, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of The Movement. Since then, numerous books have been written about his life, and his voice has been included in several documentaries and news broadcasts on the civil rights movement and public life.