STEVE INSKEEP, host:
As a younger man, Georgia Congressman John Lewis was a key voice in the Civil Rights Movement. And today, he's one of 15 people who receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the nation's first African-American president.
NPR's Kathy Lohr spoke with Lewis.
KATHY LOHR: John Lewis says President Obama called him personally to let him know he's being given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): I was just moved. I was just touched. I feel more than lucky, but very blessed.
LOHR: Lewis says, as the president talked about the congressman's lifelong struggle for civil rights, it brought tears to his eyes to realize the kind of societal changes he has witnessed.
Rep. LEWIS: It's hard to believe that in a short time, that we have come so far as a nation and as a people. 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.
LOHR: In the 1960s, Lewis was one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC. 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.
(Soundbite of historical footage, March on Washington):
Rep. LEWIS: As it stands now, the voting section of this bill will not help the thousands of black people who want to vote. 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.
(Soundbite of applause)
LOHR: After years of working in the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis was elected to Congress from Georgia's 5th District in 1986, where he became a leader, often called the Conscience of the Congress.
One of Lewis' few political controversies came in 2007. Ironically, it was over then-Senator Barack Obama. As Mr. Obama campaigned for the party's presidential nomination, Lewis endorsed Hillary Clinton. Lewis had a longstanding relationship with both Bill and Hillary Clinton. He called it a close friendship. But by early 2008, the congressman was under pressure to back Mr. Obama, and citing the will of the district, Lewis switched his endorsement.
Rep. LEWIS: This man, this senator, Barack Obama, somehow in some way, he's been able to emerge to carry the hopes and dreams and aspirations of millions of people.
LOHR: But the decision weighed heavily on Lewis.
Rep. LEWIS: This has been hard. This has been difficult, but there come a time when you have to make a decision.
LOHR: He said back then, that choosing to support Mr. Obama was tougher than participating in his most famous civil rights battle in 1965, walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. 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 Barack Obama was elected president, the congressman watched the results from his district headquarters in Atlanta.
Rep. LEWIS: 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.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
LOHR: 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, Congressman John Lewis says he will likely be thinking about his own parents in rural Alabama, who were not allowed to vote.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
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