The Late Rep. John Lewis, who in the 1960s took part in the Freedom Rides challenging bus terminal segregation and helped plan the March on Washington, gave the 155th Commencement Address at Washington University. Lewis received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from the university on May 20, 2016.
Lewis dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties and building “The Beloved Community” of justice and equality that his mentor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned.
The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools, where he experienced racism as a young boy.
As a teen, he was inspired by radio broadcasts of King’s sermons and news of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott.
It wasn’t long before he joined the civil rights movement, and for nearly 55 years, Lewis remained at the vanguard of human rights struggles in the United States.
In 1963, at age 23, Lewis became a nationally recognized leader in the civil rights movement when he took over as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organizing and participating in sit-ins, Freedom Rides and voter registration drives.
He became known as one of the “Big Six” leaders who organized the historic 1963 March on Washington. Lewis was the youngest keynote speaker at the march, which is credited with helping pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he is the only surviving member of the “Big Six.”
Lewis also helped spearhead one of the most seminal moments of the civil rights movement when he and more than 600 peaceful protestors, marching from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., attempted to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. Lewis and his fellow marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
First elected to Congress in November 1986, he last served as the senior chief deputy whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House. He passed away on July 17, 2020. Read more about the university’s relationship and previous interviews with Lewis.