Civil rights icon and Democratic Rep. John Lewis grew emotional Wednesday night as he received the National Book Award, marveling at the honor's contrast to 60 years ago, when he was turned away from libraries due to the color of his skin.
"This is unreal. This is unbelievable," Lewis said as he tearfully accepted the award for his novel, March: Book Three — the third part in an autobiographical graphic novel series about his experiences during the civil rights movement.
"Some of you know, I grew up in rural Alabama, very, very poor. Very few books in our home," Lewis said. "I remember, in 1956 when I was 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and cousins going down to the public library trying to get library cards. And we were told that the library was for whites only and not for coloreds."
"To come here and receive this award, this honor, it's too much," Lewis added, growing overcome by emotion.
Lewis is the last surviving member of the "Big Six" — a group of civil rights leaders, including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who helped organize the March on Washington in 1963.
He was the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which helped organize the sit-ins and freedom rides that helped earn African-Americans a slew of advancements toward equal rights.
Lewis was later elected to the House in 1987, where he still serves.
In 2016, he helped organize a sit-in on the House floor to push for gun control reforms.