The National Center for Civil and Human Rights
Artwork by Benny Andrews
“When I was a student, I studied philosophy and religion. I talked about being patient. Some people say I was too hopeful, too optimistic, but you have to be optimistic just in keeping with the philosophy of non-violence.”
Library (John Lewis Series) (2005) by Benny AndrewsThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights
His activist career began as a Religion and Philosophy student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he studied the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence under the mentorship of Reverend James Lawson and participated in lunch counter sit-ins.
As one of the original Freedom Riders, a multiracial group of civil rights activists taking interstate bus trips through the South in 1961, he rode to test Supreme Court decisions that segregation on interstate buses and terminals was unconstitutional.
Confrontation 1 (John Lewis Series) (2006) by Benny AndrewsThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights
The young activists attempted to integrate restrooms, waiting rooms, and lunch counters at terminals and were greeted by mobs, with John Lewis violently attacked at Rock Hill, South Carolina and Montgomery, Alabama Greyhound bus terminals.
John Lewis Speaking at the March on Washington (John Lewis Series) (2005) by Benny AndrewsThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights
John Lewis speaking at The March on Washington, 1963
In 1963, as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and one of The Big Six, he was the youngest speaker at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
John Lewis's Speech at the March on Washington, 1963
"We're tired of being beaten by policemen. We're tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. We want our freedom and we want it now!" - John Lewis speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial, 1963 March on Washington
The Pettus Bridge (John Lewis Series) (2005) by Benny AndrewsThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights
In 1965, John Lewis and Hosea Williams led a march of 600 nonviolent demonstrators from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights.
Confrontation 2 (John Lewis Series) (2006) by Benny AndrewsThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights
Governor George Wallace granted law enforcement the authority to use any means to stop the march.
Attackers (John Lewis Series) (2005) by Benny AndrewsThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights
When the protesters tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they were confronted by state troopers and sheriff deputies, some on horseback. The peaceful protesters were tear-gassed, trampled, and beaten with bullwhips and nightsticks, resulting in 50 hospitalizations.
Attacking Police Study (John Lewis Series) (2005) by Benny AndrewsThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights
John Lewis's skull was fractured by the force of a state trooper’s club. He appeared on television, appealing to President Johnson to respond.
Broadcasts of the incident, known as Bloody Sunday, were transmitted to millions of American homes and international media outlets.
News (John Lewis Series (2005) by Benny AndrewsThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights
The tragic, yet pivotal moment led to increased awareness and support of the Movement and solidarity demonstrations in 80 cities, leading to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
John Lewis maintained a commitment to civil and human rights. As an elected member of the US House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, he continued to advocate for improved voter rights legislation and police reform, as well as economic equality and peaceful conflict resolution between nations.
He was arrested more than 40 times for his activism, including during his time as a Congressman when he was arrested for anti-apartheid demonstrations at the South African Embassy and genocide in Darfur at the Sudanese Embassy. The Conscience of the Congress served from 1986 until his death on July 17, 2020.
John Lewis' last words read by Morgan Freeman.
"Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part."
About the artist: Benny Andrews (b. 1930, d. 2006) was a celebrated African American painter, printmaker, and collage artist. Born to sharecroppers in Plainview, Georgia, he went on to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before finding success in New York City. His narrative works documented social and political themes of the times, including depictions of the American Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, personal and familial narratives, and the relocation of American Indians. He later illustrated children’s books about the lives of prominent figures in Black history including his friend Congressman John Lewis. The John Lewis Series was one of his final bodies of work.
“For Benny, there was no line where his activism ended, and his art began. To him, using his brush and his pen to capture the essence and spirit of his time was as much an act of protest as sitting-in or sitting-down was for me.” – John Lewis
Digital Story Curators - Sam Landis & Lauren Tate Baeza