Cambridge, MA—The Center for Public Leadership (CPL) at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) has named civil rights activist and U.S. Representative John Lewis (Georgia, 5th District) as this year’s recipient of the Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award. The award honors Congressman Lewis for his decades-long crusade to protect and secure human rights and civil liberties for all Americans.

The award and $125,000 prize are given biennially to a leader or team who has “improved the quality of life of those in the United States and inspired others to do the same.” The award will be presented to Lewis at a public ceremony at Harvard Kennedy School on April 18. The ceremony will include a conversation with Lewis moderated by ImeIme Umana (MPP/JD ’18), Sheila C. Johnson Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership and incoming president of the Harvard Law Review. Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf will deliver remarks.

For almost sixty years, John Lewis has led and served as one of this country’s most formidable civil rights activists. As a boy he was inspired by action surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He carried this early inspiration with him through college, organizing sit-ins and serving as one of the South’s first Freedom Riders. At the young age of 23 Lewis firmly established himself on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. Commonly lauded as one of the “Big Six” figures of the era, Lewis was a key driver of and speaker at the March on Washington, trusted advisor to Rev. King, a leader of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and a central architect of 1964’s Freedom Summer, a volunteer campaign to register African American voters in Mississippi. 

In 1986 Lewis was elected as a state representative to the United States Congress and has served the community of Georgia’s 5th district in this capacity for more than 30 years. 

Core to his identity as a change agent, Lewis is explicit in his belief that cause comes with risk. He has been imprisoned, beaten, and arrested dozens of times for his non-violent action over the years—including his time as a sitting U.S. representative, when he faced arrest for protesting South African apartheid, genocide in Darfur, and immigration rights outside of the U.S. Capitol. In the summer of 2016, Lewis organized a 26-hour sit-in challenging gun control legislation that drew 170 lawmakers to the House floor.

“For more than half a century, John Lewis has been a pioneering leader in advancing the civil rights of all Americans and inspiring other leaders here and abroad, said David Gergen, Public Service Professor of Public Leadership and co-director of the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. “One of the most admired and courageous advocates for social equality of our time, Lewis’ strength comes from his fundamental and unwavering sense of justice. To this day, he continues to inspire those working to scale change in their communities and country.”

Continued Gergen, “Alan Gleitsman believed in individuals whose vision and courage inspired others to confront injustice, and we couldn’t be more honored to have John Lewis representing this charge as the Center for Public Leadership’s 2017 Gleitsman Award winner.”

John Lewis holds a B.A. in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, and is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville, Tennessee. He holds an honorary degree from Harvard University and almost 50 additional honorary degrees from colleges and universities throughout the United States.

He is the co-author of The New York Times bestselling graphic trilogy MARCH—recently adopted into the core curriculum of school systems across the country to teach the Civil Rights Movement to the next generation—and the 2012 NAACP Image Award-winning That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change. He contributes regularly to national media outlets including CNN, The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and Roll Call, among many others.

In 2011 President Barack Obama presented Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country's highest civilian honor.


Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award Event Details

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

5:30-6:30 p.m.

Harvard Kennedy School

JFK Jr. Forum

79 JFK St. | Cambridge, MA

Tickets required and available to the general public via lottery, here.


About Representative John Lewis

John Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he calls "The Beloved Community” in America. He was born the son of sharecroppers on February 21, 1940, outside of Troy, Alabama. As a student at Fisk University, he organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1961, he volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. During the height of the Movement, from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. On March 7, 1965, he along with Hosea Williams led over 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as "Bloody Sunday." News broadcasts and photographs revealing the senseless cruelty of the segregated South helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
After leaving SNCC, Lewis continued his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement as Associate Director of the Field Foundation and Director of the Southern Regional Council's Voter Education Project. In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council, and five years later he was elected to Congress, representing Georgia's 5th Congressional District. He is Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House, a member of the House Ways & Means Committee, a member of its Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, and Ranking Member of its Subcommittee on Oversight.
John Lewis holds a B.A. in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, and he is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the recipient of numerous awards from eminent national and international institutions, including the highest civilian honor granted by President Barack Obama, the Medal of Freedom. He is the co-author of the #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novel memoir trilogy MARCH, written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, which received a 2014 American Library Association Coretta Scott King Book Award Author Honor. 

Lewis lives in Atlanta, Georgia. He has one son, John Miles

About Alan Gleitsman

Alan Gleitsman was a television executive who founded the Gleitsman Foundation in 1989 following the sale of his extensive feature film and television library. A graduate of Cornell University and a U.S. Air Force veteran, Gleitsman’s longtime commitment to social justice was aligned with his philosophy that even a single person with heart and determination can bring about meaningful solutions to challenging societal problems. Gleitsman was fond of quoting Robert F. Kennedy: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” In 2007, Gleitsman’s Estate endowed the Gleitsman Program in Leadership for Social Change at Harvard Kennedy School, which supports both the awarding of the Gleitsman Citizen and International Activist Awards, and the newly-established Alan L. Gleitsman Professor of Social Change at Harvard Kennedy School.


Lael Harris
Contact Phone Number