Known as one of the most courageous leaders the Civil Rights Movement ever produced, Congressman John R. Lewis (D-GA) will deliver the Convocation Address at Hobart and William Smith Colleges on Wednesday, Aug. 29 on Stern Lawn.
Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights and securing personal dignity. He played a key role in the struggle to end segregation, was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and today is a nine-term Congressman representing Georgia’s 5th District which encompasses most of Atlanta. A passionate advocate for nonviolence, Lewis is respected on both sides of the House for his unerring ethical standards.
“Congressman John Lewis is the ideal individual to open and frame the academic year,” said Colleges President Mark D. Gearan. “A passionate and inspiring speaker, he is dedicated to the notion that one person, through public service, can truly change the world. Certainly, his own life bears this out. Listening to him speak is like a master class in leadership and we are honored to welcome him to the Colleges and to Geneva.”
The son of sharecroppers, Lewis committed himself at a young age to activism and to the doctrine of non-violence practiced by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University and graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tenn.
Lewis helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. In 1961, he risked his life to participate in the Freedom Rides and was twice beaten almost to death, once in 1961 at a Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, Ala., and again in 1965 during a peaceful protest march in Selma, Ala. On the second occasion, Alabama state police attacked the marchers using tear gas, dogs and nightsticks in what came to be known as the “Bloody Sunday” march.
Although young, just 23, Lewis was one of the organizers of the historic March on Washington and spoke to the same gathering that heard King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
After leaving SNCC in 1966, Lewis worked with community organizations and was director of the Voter Education Project which, under his leadership, added nearly four million minorities to the rolls. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Lewis director of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency. He was elected to Congress in 1986 and has been senior chief deputy whip in the Democratic Caucus and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. For many years, he served on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and is the chairman of its Subcommittee on Oversight.
In November 2006, Esquire Magazine named Lewis one of the Nine Pillars of Congress, describing him as “a beacon of probity in the House.”
Watch Citizenship, a short film describing Lewis’ struggles during the Civil Rights Movement.
Learn more about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and listen to an audio clip of Lewis describing his experiences on the Freedom Rides.