A civil rights activist, Lewis risked his life numerous times during the 1960s, while participating in sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters, the Freedom Rides, and the Selma to Montgomery marches: he endured more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries. He chronicled this period of his life in the graphic novel trilogy “March,” co-written by Andrew Aydin, with art by Nate Powell.
John Robert Lewis was born near Troy, Alabama, on February 21, 1940. He grew up on his parents’ farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County. While studying Religion and Philosophy at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, Lewis was inspired into becoming a civil rights activist by the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, and the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. By 1963, he was recognized as one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, becoming a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington, and Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
After leaving the SNCC in 1966, he went on to become the Director of the Voter Education Project (VEP), which under his leadership, added nearly four million minority voters to the nation’s electoral registers. In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council, and then in 1986, to the United States Congress, where he served as the Representative of Georgia’s 5th Congressional District (roughly covering three quarters of Atlanta) until his death.
Lewis was the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Lincoln Medal, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s Profile in Courage Award. For “March: Book One,” he and his collaborators earned the American Library Association (ALA)’s Coretta Scott King Book Award Author Honor for “March,” and a place on the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA)’s list of the Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens in 2014: it also became the first graphic novel to receive a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.
“March: Book Two” was a New York Times and Washington Post bestseller, earning an Eisner Award and two Harvey Awards. 2016’s “March: Book Three” became the first comics work to ever win a National Book Award, and it made further history when it became the first book to win four Youth Media Awards in a single year. The trilogy has been made a first-year common reading text at numerous colleges and universities across the country, including Georgia State University. The first volume of another trilogy, “Run,” chronicling Lewis’s transition to electoral politics, with art by Afua Richardson, was set to be published by Abrams Books last year, but has been delayed indefinitely.
In a statement, President Barack Obama wrote, “Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did. And thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise.” Top Shelf Productions, which published the “March” trilogy, tweeted, “The passing of Congressman John Lewis is a profound loss. His example will continue to inspire young people for many generations to come.”
Lewis was married to Lillian Miles from 1968, until her death in 2012. They are survived by one son, John Miles.