Civil Rights icon and Congressman Rep. John Lewis will be honored at the Alliance for a Better Georgia’s Third Annual Comedy Roast and presented the Progressive Courage Award on August 31. As we prepare for the big event, we’re looking back on the incredible impact Lewis has left on American history and Georgia politics.
Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis was one the 13 original Freedom Riders, the seven African Americans and six whites who faced violence and brutality as they challenged the segregated facilities in the South that had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The Freedom Riders of 1961 planned to travel from Washington, D.C., through the Deep South to New Orleans, La. The group made it through Virginia and North Carolina on the Greyhound bus with little incident, but in Rock Hill, SC., they had the first violent encounter.
Lewis and two of his fellow Freedom Riders — an African American colleague and a white colleague — tried to enter a whites-only waiting area. The moment they enter the door, however, a group of white men ambushed and beat them.
Still, Lewis was undeterred. He broke off from the Freedom Riders for only a few days in order to interview for a fellowship and planned to rejoin the group in Montgomery, Ala.
But the bus didn’t make it to Montgomery. In Anniston, Ala., an angry mob of about 200 white people surrounded the bus when it neared the station, followed in cars, slashed the tires and threw a bomb onto the bus. The flames forced the Freedom Riders out and into the hands of the white mob. A second bus of Freedom Riders also met a mob at the Birmingham station and suffered a violent beating from the group.
When Lewis learned of these events, he met with activist leaders in Nashville and convinced them to find a way to allow him and a new set of riders continue to Montgomery. Though this time they were promised police protection, the police left the bus just as it reached the Montgomery station, and the riders faced another mob and another brutal beating.
Lewis persisted and continued to Jackson, Miss., where they were finally greeted with a group of supporters. However, members were arrested when they tried to use a whites-only facility and taken to maximum-security penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., including Lewis.
The constant violence and arrests never swayed Lewis from his commitment to justice.
“For four years I had traveled by bus from going from rural Alabama to Montgomery, Montgomery to Birmingham, Birmingham to Nashville and I saw the segregation, the racial discrimination,” he said in a 2011 interview with the AJC. “I saw those signs that said white waiting, colored waiting; white men, colored men…and I wanted to do something about it. And the Freedom Rides was my opportunity to do something about it.”
He was right: In response to the Freedom Rides, Interstate Commerce Commission enforced the desegregation ruling and removed the “whites only” and “colored only” signs.
Lewis continued to find opportunities to fight for justice throughout his life — as a Civil Rights activist and as a Congressman. And at the Alliance’s Third Annual Comedy Roast, Rep. Lewis and his legacy will be honored with a night of Good Trouble and the prestigious Progressive Courage Award.
Please join the fun on August 31 at 6 p.m. at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center to honor one of the most important Civil Rights heroes in American history.