U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) shared some insight about his work as a civil rights crusader as he spoke Monday morning at Saint Joseph’s University.
His presentation culminated SJU’s commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on the campus in 1967. Lewis is one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and was an architect of the historic March on Washington.
He was born the son of sharecroppers in 1940 outside Troy, Ala. Lewis questioned his parents about the “white men” and “colored men” signs that he saw while growing up, but they advised him to stay out of the way and not get into trouble.
Inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott and King’s radio broadcasts, he decided to become a part of the civil rights movement.
“The actions of Rosa Parks and the words of Martin Luther King inspired me to find a way to get in the way — to get into trouble, what I call good trouble, and I’ve been getting into trouble ever since,” Lewis told the students, scholars, community members and political leaders who packed the Michael J. Hagan ’85 Arena.
“My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just — you have a moral obligation to stand up, to say something, to do something and not be quiet,” he said to resounding applause.
Lewis’ activism began when he was a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., where he staged sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. He recalled how he and other sit-in participants were beaten, spit on, and had lighted cigarettes stubbed out in their hair and hot drinks poured down their backs. They were informed that if they continued to sit-in, they would be arrested and taken to jail.
Lewis said the first time he was arrested — on Feb. 27, 1960 — was a liberating experience. During the 1960s he was arrested 40 times. Since he was elected to Congress, he has been arrested five times, twice at Washington’s South African embassy to protest apartheid, twice outside the embassy of Sudan and in October 2013 during a rally on the National Mall for Congress to act on a comprehensive immigration bill.
“We have hundreds of thousands of dreamers,” Lewis said. “It’s not fair. It’s not right for so many of these young people, and those who are not so young, to live in fear. We need to set them on the path to citizenship.”
During his far-ranging speech, Lewis addressed the life and legacy of King, his friend and mentor.
“If it wasn’t for Martin Luther King Jr., I don’t know what would have happened to our country,” Lewis stated.
“He gave us courage to stand up, to be brave, to be courageous, to be bold. He helped liberate America. Our country is better. As a people — we are better.”
He acknowledged that the country still has a distance to go.
“There are individuals trying to take us back,” Lewis said. “We’ve come too far. We’ve made too much progress and we’re not going back. We’re going forward to redeem the soul of America.”
To bring attention to the need for voting rights in Alabama, Lewis and others led peaceful protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, with the intention of marching to Montgomery.
During his speech, Lewis recalled how state troopers advanced on the protesters, trampling them with horses, beating them with night sticks and bullwhips and releasing tear gas.
“I was the first one to be hit,” he stated, noting that he was knocked down and his legs went from under him.
“I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die on that bridge, but somehow God almighty, he kept me.”
Lewis chronicles the events on the Pettus Bridge in the best-selling graphic novel trilogy “MARCH,” which he co-authored.
He rounded out his presentation at SJU by giving those in attendance a mandate. He highlighted the legacy left by King and Robert F. Kennedy.
“If these two men had lived, our nation and our world would be better,” Lewis stated.
“But all of us — each one of us — have an obligation, a mission and a mandate to pick up where Dr. King and Robert Kennedy left off. We can do it and we must do it.”
Prior to his presentation, Lewis was awarded Saint Joseph’s University’s President’s Medal for Excellence by university President Mark C. Reed.
“Mr. Lewis models all that Saint Joseph’s University seeks to embody in its students — faith in God, empathy for others, courage in the face of adversity and commitment to action and the Jesuit principle of service to justice,” Reed stated.
Lewis entered government in 1981 when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. He was elected to Congress in 1986 and has served as a U.S. representative since then.