WASHINGTON — Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the Civil Rights movement who for decades has been an advocate for peace, freedom and justice, has been awarded the inaugural LBJ Liberty and Justice for All Award by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation.
"In his lifelong quest for freedom and basic human rights for all, John Lewis embodies the beliefs that President (Lyndon) Johnson held dear — that every citizen should share in the benefits of the privileges and protections that lie at the heart of the American dream," said Larry Temple, chairman of the LBJ Foundation.
The son of sharecroppers outside Troy, Ala., Lewis attended segregated public schools and as a boy was inspired by the radio broadcasts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., and joined the Freedom Rides, confronting segregation by sitting in bus seats reserved for white patrons. At the age of 23, Lewis was a keynote speaker — alongside King — at the historic March on Washington.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis and 600 protesters attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery to support voting rights in Alabama. Alabama state troopers blocked them and viciously beat Lewis and his fellow marchers, in a confrontation known as "Bloody Sunday." It was one of dozens of times Lewis would be attacked or arrested during the Civil Rights era.
A week after the march, Lewis and King watched President Johnson notify Congress, in a live television address, that he was introducing the Voting Rights Act to overcome the nation's crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. "We shall overcome," Johnson declared.
"I was deeply moved," Lewis recalled years later. "Lyndon Johnson was no politician that night. He was a man who spoke from his heart. His were the words of a statesman and more."
The speech brought tears to the eyes of King, Lewis remembers. Less than five months later, Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act into law.
"By honoring Congressman Lewis with the first-ever LBJ Liberty and Justice for All Award, history comes full circle," Temple said.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Ambassador Ron Kirk, the United States trade representative, will serve as honorary chairs at a dinner celebration in Washington to honor Congressman Lewis.
The Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit organization, supports the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library & Museum and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas in Austin. Started by President and Lady Bird Johnson, the foundation benefits the library by funding work of the archives, researchers, exhibits and public programs. The foundation also supports the LBJ School by providing funds for student scholarships and faculty endowments, with the goal of attracting the best and brightest minds to prepare them for public-policy leadership positions.