John Lewis: Voter Education Project Executive Director, 1970-1977

By Alison Hughes, Archival Assistant, Voter Education Project Collection, Robert W. Woodruff Library of Atlanta University Center

“Working for Freedom: Documenting Civil Rights Organizations” is a collaborative project between Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, The Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, The Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, and The Robert W. Woodruff Library of Atlanta University Center to uncover and make available previously hidden collections documenting the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta and New Orleans. The project is administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources with funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Each organization regularly contributes blog posts about their progress.

For more information about the collection described in this post, please contact the Archives Research Center at Atlanta University Center, archives [at] auctr [dot] edu

John Lewis became a Civil Rights leader during his college days. As a student of Fisk University, Lewis organized his first sit-in in 1960. The next year Lewis became one of the first participants in the CORE sponsored Freedom Ride. He was one of the first to be attacked when the bus reached Rock Hill, SC and then again when he reached Montgomery, AL. When the bus arrived at in Jackson, Mississippi, Lewis was arrested and sent to Parchman State Penitentiary.

By 1963, Lewis, who had been an organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) three years earlier, was selected by acclamation to become SNCC’s National Chairman. As National Chairman Lewis was responsible for speaking at and organizing events; one of the largest events came only a few months after his selection as president. This event, the Mississippi Freedom Summer brought 1,000 students, ministers, and lawyers to Mississippi to lead and participate in civil rights activities. While National Chairman, Lewis also helped organize the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. During the march, Lewis was attacked by local and state police and suffered severe head injuries. He was hospitalized and upon his release he walked the 50 miles of the march.

Lewis left SNCC in 1966 to serve as Associate Director of the Field Foundation in New York. He held this position for only a year before be selected as the Director of the Southern Regional Council’s Community Organization project based in Atlanta, GA. In 1970 he was named Executive Director of the Voter Education Project.

VEP Executive Director John Lewis speaking at an event.  Photo by Elaine Tomlin.  Click image to enlarge.

During his tenure at VEP the organization became a separate, tax-exempt entity no longer under the Southern Regional Council umbrella. With this new independence, the disintegration of the Civil Rights Movement and the change in tax law, VEP was forced to change their primary focus from supportive to activist. Lewis embarked on Voter Mobilization Tours with Georgia State Legislator Julian Bond. These tours began in Mississippi when the state was reapportioned and every citizen was required to re-register to vote. VEP expanded their mission to include Mexican-Americans and worked to establish the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. A youth program was developed after VEP received a two year grant. Towards the end of Lewis’s term as Executive Director, the financial situation at VEP became unstable. Staff was cut, but VEP maintained its mission throughout the instability. Through benefit dinners held annually, Lewis and VEP were able to keep the organization afloat.

John Lewis with Julian Bond during the Voter Mobilization Tour in Mississippi.  Click image to enlarge.

In 1977, Lewis resigned from VEP to take a position as the director of ACTION, a federal volunteer organization. This position was appointed by President Jimmy Carter. He was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981. As a councilman he advocated ethics in government. In 1986 Lewis was elected Congress as the Representative for the 5th District and has maintained this office since.

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