Rep. John Lewis (D)
Georgia 5th District
Venture out of the quiet of the Ebenezer Baptist Church or the shade of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s boyhood home two blocks away and into the steamy heat of the Georgia sun, and one can see, a mile away, downtown Atlanta’s atrium skyscrapers. They are evidence of the wealth and vibrant growth of the commercial capital of the South, the metropolis that has grown up where there was little more than a railroad junction at the time of the Civil War. But the human achievement that is downtown Atlanta is overshadowed by the revolution started in large part by a man who grew up on Auburn Avenue. Atlanta’s white establishment, led by mayors William Hartsfield and Ivan Allen and Coca-Cola’s Robert Woodruff, deserve credit for abandoning segregation, but it was King and other civil rights leaders who took the risks that led them to do so. Atlanta’s city fathers acted out of good will, but also with an eye for the economic growth of the city, which they knew would be hurt by violent resistance.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
Today, Atlanta is the center of the nation’s ninth-largest metropolitan area. From Auburn Avenue, it spreads into two dozen counties of northern Georgia. From 2000 to 2007, it was the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan area. Its Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is the busiest in the world, with 90 million passengers in 2008, nearly 1 million takeoffs and landings and an expansion of its international terminal under way. Atlanta also has vibrant office centers, in downtown, midtown, and Buckhead to the north. Stadiums and sports facilities were built for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Coca-Cola’s skyscraper headquarters stands as a symbol of Atlanta’s most successful worldwide business. In 2006, Coca-Cola donated a $10 million parcel of land near Centennial Park for a $100 million civil rights museum to house the Martin Luther King Jr. papers. Mayor Shirley Franklin had orchestrated a $32 million loan to rescue them from a Sotheby’s auction.
The 5th Congressional District of Georgia includes all of the city of Atlanta, down to the suburb of East Point to the south. It occupies most of the land inside the Interstate 285 ring road—the city of Atlanta, including posh and Republican Buckhead, the westernmost part of DeKalb County, and the northern edge of Clayton County, including the airport. The 5th District is overwhelmingly Democratic.
Rep. John Lewis (D)
Elected: 1986, 12th term.
Born: Feb. 21, 1940, Troy, AL .
Education: Amer. Baptist Theol. Seminary, B.A. 1961, Fisk U., B.A. 1963.
Family: Married (Lillian); 1 child.
Elected office: Atlanta City Cncl., 1981–86.
Professional Career: Chmn., Student Nonviolent Coord. Cmte., 1963–66; Field Foundation, 1966–67; Community organization dir., Southern Regional Cncl., 1967–70; Exec. dir., Voter Educ. Project, 1970–76; Assoc. dir., ACTION, 1977–80; Community affairs dir., Natl. Coop. Bank, 1980–82.
The congressman from the 5th District is John Lewis, who made history as a leader of the civil rights movement, an experience he recounted in his 1998 autobiography, Walking With the Wind. A sharecropper’s son from Troy, Ala., he was seized by religious fervor as a child, preaching in the barnyard, determined to be a minister. Lewis was the first in his family to finish high school. He wrote to activist Ralph Abernathy for help in suing for the right to enter Troy State College, and he met King when he was 18. In 1959, at age 19, he helped organize the first lunch-counter sit-in, which was received with open hostility. In 1960, the day after John F. Kennedy was elected president, Lewis sat in the Krystal Diner in Nashville, where a waitress poured cleansing powder down his back and water over his food to get him to leave. The restaurant manager then turned a fumigating machine on him.
|John Lewis (D)||231,368||(100%)||($1,195,110)|
|John Lewis (D)||36,713||(69%)|
|Markel Hutchins (D)||8,287||(16%)|
|'Able' Mabl Thomas (D)||8,185||(15%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (100%), 2004 (100%), 2002 (100%), 2000 (77%), 1998 (79%), 1996 (100%), 1994 (69%), 1992 (72%), 1990 (76%), 1988 (78%), 1986 (75%)
In May 1961, he was on the first of the Freedom Rides, in which protesters of segregation rode buses through the South and were attacked as they went. Lewis was viciously beaten in Rock Hill, S.C., and Montgomery, Ala. He spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, criticizing Kennedy liberals for inaction on civil rights and calling for massive help for the poor. In 1964, he helped coordinate the Mississippi Freedom Project. And in March 1965, he led the Selma-to-Montgomery march to petition for voting rights and was beaten by policemen, who fractured his skull. Quietly maintaining his poise and sound judgment under harsh circumstances, Lewis was one of the people who risked their lives to make the civil rights revolution happen. He worked for Robert Kennedy for president in 1968 and was with him in Indianapolis when they heard King had been shot.
Lewis’s first foray into electoral politics was unsuccessful. He ran in 1977 to replace Democratic Rep. Andrew Young in the House and was soundly beaten by Democrat Wyche Fowler. After winning a seat on the Atlanta Council in 1981, Lewis ran again for Congress in 1986 and trailed Julian Bond 47%-35% in the primary. Even though Bond won more than 60% of the black vote, Lewis won the runoff by assembling a coalition of poor blacks and affluent whites. “Vote for the tugboat, not the showboat” was his slogan, stressing his hard work on local issues. He has been re-elected easily since.
Lewis has been a strong partisan, with a firmly liberal voting record. Usually quiet, he can speak in the forceful cadences reminiscent of black preachers during the civil rights movement, as he did in opposition to the Gulf War resolution in January 1991 and to the impeachment of President Clinton in December 1998. He is a member of the Democratic leadership, the senior chief deputy whip. He also chairs the Oversight Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. Only occasionally does he defect from his party, as when he opposed the 1994 crime bill because of his disapproval of capital punishment and when he voted against the Iraq supplemental spending bill in March 2007 because it contained funds for continued military action.
Lewis has worked to commemorate the civil rights revolution in which he played such a large part. He got a federal building in Atlanta named for King and won historic-trail designation for the demonstrators’ route from Selma to Montgomery. Since 1998, he has led members of Congress on pilgrimages to civil rights sites. In 2005, Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Democratic Rep. David Scott sponsored a bill to rename a building at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site the John Lewis Civil Rights Institute.
Lewis has stoutly defended racial quotas and preferences. He strongly championed the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, and his support helped ensure it carried by a large majority over the objections of critics, who claimed it was no longer necessary. In June 2007, he won House passage of his bill authorizing and funding new offices in the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department to investigate old civil rights cases that have languished over the years. In early 2009, the ethics travails of Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., fueled speculation that Lewis could be an acceptable alternative if Rangel were forced to step down, even though Lewis was only the fifth-ranking Democrat on the panel.
The 2008 presidential campaign was a difficult experience for Lewis. Following extensive pressure from various camps, he endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2007 as “a strong leader,” and he defended her from attacks by other civil rights leaders. When Barack Obama won the Georgia primary, Lewis came under local and national pressure to switch. Some of the pressure came from two challengers in the July primary, which Lewis eventually won, with 69% of the vote. In late February, he endorsed Obama “following a long, hard, difficult struggle” and spoke of Obama’s candidacy as a transformational moment. “Something’s happening in America, something some of us did not see coming,” Lewis said. “It’s a movement. It’s a spiritual event.”
Obama welcomed the switch, and Lewis became an outspoken advocate, sometimes excessively so, as in an October statement when he compared the campaign rhetoric of Republican nominee John McCain to that of former segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace of Alabama. McCain called the comparison “shocking and beyond the pale.” At the Democratic convention in August, where he was treated as an iconic hero, Lewis broke down in tears as he spoke of Obama’s historic candidacy and the 45th anniversary of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.” In a dramatic epilogue to Lewis’s involvement in the presidential campaign, in February 2009, Elwin Wilson of Rock Hill, S.C., apologized on national television for slugging Lewis in the Freedom Ride attack, saying “I am ashamed.” Seated next to him, Lewis embraced the 68-year-old man, and said, “I forgive you.” Lewis called the apology “amazing, unreal, unbelievable” and said that it showed the “power of reconciliation.”