JULY 7, 1961

U.S. Rep. John Lewis Credit: Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Future U.S. Rep. John Lewis was released after 40 days from Mississippi’s most notorious prison, the State Penitentiary at Parchman. Jackson police arrested him and other Freedom Riders who entered a “whites-only” area of the bus station and refused to move on. 

After Lewis, a son of sharecroppers, learned about the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott, he decided to attend the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, where he embraced the nonviolence philosophy.

 One of the original 13 Freedom Riders, he entered the “whites-only” waiting room in Rock Hill, South Carolina — only to become the target of an attack. Two weeks later, he joined another Freedom Ride, this one bound for Jackson, Mississippi. When he and other riders arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, an angry mob attacked them, striking Lewis in the head with a wooden crate. 

“I thought I was going to die,” he recalled.

In 1963, he delivered a fiery speech at the March on Washington. Two years later, he led the demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, which helped propel passage of the Voting Rights Act. In 1986, he was elected to Congress and not long after, he proposed an African-American museum in the nation’s capital. In 2003, the bill finally passed Congress, and the president signed it. 

In 2011, he received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and five years later, he won the National Book Award for the third installment of his graphic novel, March

“I grew up in rural Alabama, very poor, very few books in our home,” he told the crowd gathered. “I remember in 1956, when I was 16 years old, going to the public library to get library cards, and we were told the library was for whites only and not for coloreds. And to come here and receive this honor, it’s too much.”

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.