2/27/2013 - Rep. John Lewis encouraged listeners to ‘get in the way’ to effect change
Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) was part of the altercation known as "Bloody Sunday" in Selma on March 7, 1965, when he suffered wounds from Alabama state troopers. His return to the area on Feb. 21, 2013--his 73rd birthday--was more pleasant when he received an honorary degree from Judson College.
Lewis told his Marion audience that he was inspired as a young person by the story of Rosa Parks, the Montgomery resident arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat in 1955, whom he called "a woman who got in the way." "I've been trying to get in the way, too, to bring about change," he said.
Lewis noted he'd been arrested and jailed more than 40 times in America and four times in South Africa protesting injustice.
Lewis was born in Troy, Ala. to a family of sharecroppers. During the height of the civil rights movement in the mid-60s he founded and chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activism including sit-ins and other activities. He coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. The following year he helped spearhead one of the most memorable events of the civil rights movement in Selma.
Lewis was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986 from Georgia's 5th Congressional District and continues to serve in that office. He authored two volumes about his civil rights years: "Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement" published in 1998 and "Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change" in 2012. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom two years ago by President Obama.
Lewis said he'd seen many positive changes in his life. He told of going with friends to the Troy Public Library when he was 16 and being turned away. "This facility is for whites only," the librarian told them in 1956. Lewis returned to the library in 1998 for a book-signing, he said, and afterwards was given a library card.
Lewis earned a degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University and graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville. He said it was at the seminary that he first began to study non-violence as practiced by Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi. "We learned that non-violence wasn't just a principle, but a way of life," he said. "We see in every human being spark of the divine. This is the power of peace. We went out to redeem our country. "
Lewis was one of the original group of Freedom Riders who sought to integrate the interstate bus system. He told of being beaten at bus stations in South Carolina and in Alabama in 1961. "In February of 2009 a man came to my congressional office with his son, and told me he was one of my attackers in South Carolina," Lewis said. "He told me he was wrong and he asked me to forgive him. I did and we hugged. We've visited on four occasions since that time. This is the power of forgiveness. Hate is too heavy a burden to bear."
Lewis gave another example of changing attitudes when he talked about the upcoming "Bridge Crossing Jubilee" in Selma. Under the auspices of the "Faith and Politics Institute" in Washington, he said he'd participated in Congressional Pilgrimages to civil rights sites in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma for the past 13 years. "The daughter of Gov. [George] Wallace [Peggy Wallace Kennedy] held my hand as we walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge," he said. "And she will be with us again this year. That's the power of reconciliation."
Lewis challenged the young people in his audience to be "ambassadors of peace." "Teach us the way to get along with each other and teach us to be brothers and sisters in one family," he said.
"We all live in same house. We must care for each other. We're all children of the king. Never give up. Never become bitter. Keep your faith. Let the spirit of God Almighty be your guide."
Photo: Rep. John Lewis is hooded by Judson College president Dr. David Potts and Judson artist-in-residence Dr. Billie Jean Young after receiving an honorary degree from the college on Feb. 21. Photo by Bill Mathews.