U.S. Congressman John Lewis delivers MLK Day keynote


Civil rights legend U.S. Congressman John Lewis delivered the keynote address at Vanderbilt University’s commemoration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jan. 16.

The theme for Vanderbilt’s commemoration is “Fostering the Beloved Community,” which will carry through to Lewis’ address.

Inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery bus boycott and the words of King, which he heard on radio broadcasts, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville while a student at American Baptist College. In 1961, he volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South.

During the height of the movement, he was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he helped form. SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activism in the movement. At the age of 23, he was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963.

Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. After leaving SNCC in 1966, he continued his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement as associate director of the Field Foundation and by participating in the Southern Regional Council’s voter registration programs. He went on to become the director of the Voter Education Project. Under his leadership, the VEP transformed the nation’s political climate by adding nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls. In 1977, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency.

In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. Five years later he was elected to Congress and has served as U.S. representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since then. He is senior chief deputy whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, a member of its Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, and chairman of its Subcommittee on Oversight.

Lewis holds a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University and is a graduate of American Baptist College, both in Nashville. He is the recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees and numerous awards.