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."