Today, FIRE honors one of the men who marched alongside Dr. King. One of “The Big Six” of the Civil Rights movement, John Lewis was president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—a group of black students who organized against institutional racism and segregation. The students were able to organize and meet on college campuses and held their first meeting in April of 1960 at Shaw University. In 1963, Lewis represented SNCC when he spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the same day Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Years later, in 1987, Lewis was elected to represent Georgia’s 5th District in the United States House of Representatives, which he serves to this day.
On September 8, 2005, Representative Lewis addressed Congress, powerfully detailing the important contribution the free press made to the Civil Rights movement. Lewis illustrated how media personally influenced him, particularly a radio program that he heard at 15 years old that featured Dr. King. Lewis described this experience as a seminal moment in his life that changed his “destiny.” He shared the impact that the First Amendment played in this period in American history:
I have often said that without the media the Civil Rights Movement would have been a bird without wings. I am not certain where we would be today as a nation, if the American public had not been made to acknowledge the struggles we faced in the American South… The Civil RIghts Movement is deeply indebted to the courage, the strength, the integrity, and the talent of print and broadcast journalists who overcame their fear and decided to tell the American story. America is deeply indebted to these moment-by-moment, modern day griots who hold up a mirror image of our society for us to see. Without a free press, this Nation would not be, could not be a beacon of justice and equality that has inspired men, women, and children worldwide to try to build a better world.
Representative Lewis’ words serve as a reminder of the impact that our First Amendment rights have on creating positive change. Both Lewis and Dr. King are examples of why protecting students’ right to assemble, organize, and express themselves is essential. FIRE urges students, faculty, and administrators to join us in honoring the sacrifices of these two men and share in their commitment to free speech. Today, and every day, FIRE is proud to serve students and faculty around the country to ensure that they may freely exercise their First Amendment rights.