Congressional Patriot Award Goes to Lewis, Johnson

Congressmen Fought Different Fights but for the Same Cause

Lewis, left, was a Freedom Rider; Johnson was a POW for seven years. (Roll Call file photos)
Lewis, left, was a Freedom Rider; Johnson was a POW for seven years. (Roll Call file photos)
Posted March 13, 2016 at 6:00am

Two men from opposite political ends will be recognized Tuesday for a common trait: patriotism.  

The Georgia liberal was badly injured on “Bloody Sunday” marching for civil rights over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. The Texas conservative spent seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. On Tuesday, Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Sam Johnson, R-Texas, will share a stage at the Library of Congress and receive the inaugural Congressional Patriot Award, presented by the Bipartisan Policy Center.  

“Congressman Lewis and I fought different fights during the same time, but we were both fighting for freedom.  America is the world’s shining example of freedom – and I pray we continue to uphold and defend this foundation upon which our country was built,” Johnson said.  

Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders, was a key figure in the fight for civil rights as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His story has become part of cultural lore in the form of his autobiographical graphic novels, “March” and in the movie “Selma.”  

Johnson was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam and a resident of the “Hanoi Hilton,” the same prison that held Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during the war. Within his seven years of captivity, he was held in solitary confinement for 42 months for resisting captors and not released until 1973.  

Both congressmen had to overcome the horrendous conditions they faced and have since been influential political leaders in their parties. Lewis was elected in 1986; Johnson in a special election in 1991.  

In June, following the deadly shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and ensuing fight over taking down Confederate flags and monuments, Lewis fought to keep the Pettus Bridge under the same name, even though Edmund Pettus was a Confederate general and member of the Ku Klux Klan.  

His reasoning was that the country must embrace its history, not hide it.  

“Patriotism is an unashamed appreciation for and pride in our country,” Johnson said. “Patriotism is important, but it must be put into practice.” He wrote a book about his POW experience, has had three surgeries on his right hand and began flying again. To this day, the congressman refuses to eat rice, but has since returned to Hanoi.  

“John F. Kennedy’s quote – ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country – is perhaps more applicable today than it was before,” he added.  

A four-person committee from the Bipartisan Policy Center — former Senate Majority Leaders Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D.; former Agriculture Secretary and Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan., and former Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine — made the selection of Johnson and Lewis to receive the first Congressional Patriot Award.  

Lewis and Johnson will be celebrated at a members reception on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building.  

Contact Gangitano at and follow her on Twitter at @AlexGangitano


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