Thursday, November 18, 2010
Image via WikipediaCivil rights leader John Lewis to get presidential medal | Reuters
(Reuters) - Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights leader beaten unconscious by Alabama state troopers in 1965 during a march for voting rights, is to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The medal, to be given early next year, is the country's highest civilian award and other honorees on President Barack Obama's list include former President George H. W. Bush, writer Maya Angelou, businessman Warren Buffet and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Lewis was born the son of Alabama sharecroppers. As a youth on his family farm in the 1950s he vowed to join Martin Luther King's movement after listening to his speeches on the radio and hearing about the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott that aimed to desegregate the city's public transport.
Lewis helped organize the first lunch counter sit-in demonstrations to violate seating laws forcing blacks to sit in restricted areas. In 1961, he volunteered for the Freedom Rides, where black and white riders defied segregation laws placing blacks in the back of the bus.
He endured attacks from angry mobs at bus stations in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Montgomery, Alabama, and also joined the Mississippi Freedom Project to register black voters.
But he gained fame for his role in the Selma-to-Montgomery march to petition for voting rights for African Americans. On March 7, 1965, state troopers attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma using clubs and tear gas.
Many marchers were injured in the attack, known as Bloody Sunday, and Lewis sustained a fractured skull. But crucially for the movement television pictures of the attack shocked the U.S. public.
Eight days later, President Lyndon Johnson condemned the violence and called on Congress to pass Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law in August that year.
Lewis, who also spoke at the 1963 March on Washington and was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, has represented Georgia's 5th congressional district since 1987.