Celebrating John Lewis

Representative John Lewis died on July 17, 2020 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was a pivotal figure of Civil Rights Movement and was involved in several major campaigns and actions throughout his life.

John Lewis

Still of John Lewis from “Eyes on the Prize”

Interviews with him were featured in the documentary series, Eyes on the Prize, and are part of the Henry Hampton Collection at Washington University Libraries. Lewis spoke about his experiences to Hampton’s production company Blackside for three separate interviews. The first two interviews are available to view in full as part of the Libraries’ Digital Gateway. The third interview conducted in 1988 can be read here. Interviews conducted for Eyes on the Prize II are currently being digitized as part of a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) Grant and will eventually be available to view via the Digital Gateway.

Civil Rights Activism

As a young man, Lewis was involved with almost every major moment in the movement, including the first sit-ins in Nashville, the Selma to Montgomery March where he was attacked by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, to helping organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and participating in the Freedom Rides. Throughout it all and in the face of physical violence and intimidation, he maintained his philosophy of nonviolence.

In his interviews for Eyes on the Prize, Lewis describes his experiences of growing up in Alabama, his desire to become a minister, and how he became the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966.

Lewis repeatedly put himself in harm’s way as part of nonviolent protests including leading crowds across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. As part of SNCC, he led close to 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965, where they were met by Alabama State Troopers and police, who brutally attacked the peaceful protestors.

In his 1985 interview he describes being in Selma and what he experienced there,

I can never forget Selma. Selma…in my estimation one of the finest hours in the history of the Civil Rights Movement…in Selma we had a response from the American people. People came there–the days after Bloody Sunday there was demonstration, nonviolent protest in more than 80 major cities in America. People didn’t like what they saw happening there. There was a sense that we had to do something, that we had to do it now. We literally, in my estimation, wrote the Voting Rights Act with our blood and with our feet, on the streets of Selma, Alabama and the Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery. 

-Interview with John Lewis, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 5, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Life Lessons

Lewis joined Congress in 1986 as a representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District (Atlanta, GA) and has served as a much respected member until his death. In 2015, Lewis attended a screening of a documentary on his life and career, Get in the Way: The Story of John Lewis, at the St. Louis International Film Festival. He also gave the 2016 commencement address at Washington University.

Kathleen Dowdey and Rep. John Lewis

Q&A with director Kathleen Dowdey and Rep. John Lewis after the screening of “Get in the Way: The Journey of John Lewis,” at the St. Louis International Film Festival, 2015

He published a memoir, Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, and returned to the Edmund Pettus Bridge 55 years after Bloody Sunday where he gave a speech alongside fellow civil rights activists Diane Nash and Amelia Boynton Robinson, Lewis told the crowd, “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”

The complete interviews from Eyes on the Prize I can be viewed on the University Libraries’ Digital Gateway.

About the author

Reference and Outreach Supervisor in Special Collections.