Overridden by ‘Black Power’
But by the time of the urban race riots of the 1960s, particularly in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965, many Black people had rejected nonviolence in favor of direct confrontation. Mr. Lewis was ousted as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1966 and replaced by the fiery Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the phrase “Black power.”
Mr. Lewis spent a few years out of the limelight. He headed the Voter Education Project, registering voters, and finished his bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy at Fisk University in Nashville in 1967.
During this period he met Lillian Miles, a librarian, teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer. She was outgoing and political and could quote Dr. King’s speeches verbatim. They were married in 1968, and she became one of his closest political advisers.
She died in 2012. Mr. Lewis’s survivors include several siblings and his son, John-Miles Lewis.
Mr. Lewis made his first attempt at running for office in 1977, an unsuccessful bid for Congress. He won a seat on the Atlanta City Council in 1981, and in 1986 he ran again for the House. It was a bitter race that pitted against each other two civil rights figures, Mr. Lewis and Julian Bond, a friend and former close associate of his in the movement. The charismatic Mr. Bond, more articulate and polished than Mr. Lewis, was the perceived favorite.
“I want you to think about sending a workhorse to Washington, and not a show horse,” Mr. Lewis said during a debate. “I want you to think about sending a tugboat and not a showboat.”
Mr. Lewis won in an upset, with 52 percent of the vote. His support came from Atlanta’s white precincts and from working-class and poor Black voters who felt more comfortable with him than with Mr. Bond, though Mr. Bond won the majority of Black voters.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Lewis’s long congressional career was marked by protests. He was arrested in Washington several times, including outside the South African Embassy for demonstrating against apartheid and at Sudan’s Embassy while protesting genocide in Darfur.