ATLANTA — John Lewis was born the son of southern sharecroppers, was unable to vote as a young man and was beaten during the struggle to end racial segregation in America.
So when he received a call from President Barack Obama to say that he would be receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February, Lewis was nearly moved to tears at the thought that the country's first black president would bestow upon him the nation's highest civilian honor.
"The only thing I've tried to do during the past 50 years is to do what I could to create a more perfect union," Lewis said in a phone interview with the Associated Press. "Back in 1961, I could not even register to vote in rural Alabama. To receive this medal, that will be presented by an African-American president, while I'm serving in Congress is amazing to me. It's almost too much to believe."
Lewis, a Georgia congressman since 1987 and a legendary figure in the civil rights movement, will be among 15 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a February 2011 ceremony.
"I'm very excited," the 70-year-old Lewis said. "It's overwhelming. It's unreal. It's unbelievable. I'm very grateful."
Lewis said that the call from Obama on Tuesday had special meaning for him.
"He kept talking about all the things that I've done and why they give this medal," Lewis said. "And I said, 'Mr. President, don't say anything else, please. If you keep talking, you're going to make me cry.'"
Lewis said he is especially honored to receive the award on the 50th anniversary of the first Freedom Rides and during Black History Month. The lunch counter sit-ins for equal access to public accommodations also began in February.
In a statement issued on Wednesday by The White House, Lewis was hailed as an American hero and giant of the civil rights movement. The statement noted that he chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early 1960s.
Lewis organized lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, Tenn., and was beaten when he rode on the first Freedom Rides through the South in 1961. At 23, Lewis was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.
In 1965, Lewis led the Selma-to-Montgomery march to petition for voting rights during which marchers were brutally confronted in an incident that became known as "Bloody Sunday." Policemen beat Lewis, fracturing his skull.
Lewis, who lives in Atlanta, represents Georgia's 5th congressional district and is the longest-serving member of the state's congressional delegation.
Last year, his civil rights colleague, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, received the Medal of Freedom.