Tue February 15, 2011

John Lewis To Get Presidential Medal Of Freedom

Georgia Rep. John Lewis on Tuesday afternoon will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the country's highest civilian honor. Lewis is one of 15 people who will be getting the award.

But for Lewis, known as a key foot soldier of the civil rights movement, the honor has a special significance because it comes from the nation's first African-American president. President Obama called him personally to let him know the news.

"I was just moved, I was just touched," Lewis told NPR. "I feel more than lucky, but very blessed."

As the president talked about the congressman's lifelong struggle for civil rights, Lewis says it brought tears to his eyes to realize the kind of societal changes he has witnessed.

"It's hard to believe that in a short time, that we have come so far as a nation and as a people," he says. "When you look back, the year that Barack Obama was born 50 years ago, black people and white people in the American South couldn't sit together on a bus or on a train or in a waiting room. And we changed that."

'One Man, One Vote'

In the 1960s, Lewis was one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, known as "Snick." He protested segregated lunch counters and helped launch the Freedom Rides throughout the South.

Lewis was beaten violently, many times. His head was bashed as angry white mobs and police attacked protesters. He was one of the speakers at the 1963 March on Washington, where he demanded an end to segregation and pointed out problems with the civil rights law that was being considered.

"As it stands now, the voting section of this bill will not help the thousands of black people who want to vote," he said in his 1963 speech. "It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama and Georgia who are qualified to vote but lack a sixth-grade education. One man, one vote is the African cry. It is ours, too. It must be ours."

After years of working in the civil rights movement, Lewis was elected in 1986 to represent Georgia's 5th District in Congress, where he became a leader, often called the "Conscience of the Congress."

A Difficult Decision

One of Lewis' few political controversies came in 2007. Ironically, it was over then-Sen. Barack Obama. As Obama campaigned for the party's presidential nomination, Lewis endorsed Hillary Clinton. Lewis had a long-standing relationship with both Bill and Hillary Clinton. He called it a close friendship. But by early 2008, the congressman was under pressure to back Obama, and citing the will of his district, Lewis switched his endorsement.

"This man, this senator, Barack Obama, somehow and in some way, he's been able to emerge to carry the hopes and dreams and aspirations of millions of people," Lewis said at the time.

But the decision weighed heavily on Lewis.

"This has been hard," he says. "This has been difficult, but there comes a time when you have to make a decision."

He said back then that choosing to support Obama was tougher than participating in his most famous civil rights battle in 1965, the walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. The episode became known as Bloody Sunday. But Lewis said he had to be on what he called "the right side of history."

In 2008, when Obama was elected president, the congressman watched the results from his district headquarters in Atlanta and gave this speech.

"Tonight we should embrace all of us," he said. "It doesn't matter whether we are black or white or Latino or Asian-American or Native American. Barack Obama is saying to America, 'We are one people.' "

Lewis said he was overwhelmed and proud to see some of the efforts of the civil rights movement realized. And when he receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Lewis says, he will most likely be thinking about his own parents in rural Alabama, who were not allowed to vote. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.