Longtime civil rights activist and Georgia Congressman John Lewis received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and delivered the commencement speech recently at Washington and Jefferson College. He is celebrating his 30th year representing the Georgia fifth district and reflected on his lifetime of activism with Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer.
Lewis grew up in Alabama where both of his parents were sharecroppers. He remembers seeing and questioning signs that separated people by white or colored.
“I would ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great grandparents why, and they would say ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”
In tenth grade, he heard words that inspired him: the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“It felt like he was speaking directly to me saying ‘John Robert Lewis, you too can do something. You can get involved,’” he remembered.
While at college at Fisk University and American Baptist College, he met both Rosa Parks and Dr. King and learned their practices.
“It was there that I started studying the way of peace, the way of love, and the way of non violence.”
Lewis played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement. From being beaten on Freedom Rides to speaking at the historic March on Washington at the young age of 23, Lewis quickly solidified his place as one of the “Big Six” of the Movement.
“There is not any way that I can forget that day,” said Lewis of the Washington march. “It was unreal, unbelievable.”
According to Lewis, one of his most proud legislative moments has been getting a bill passed to erect a museum on the National Mall for African American Culture and History.
“African American history is American history,” said Lewis. “Everybody, for generations to come, here in America, and around the world need to know what happened and how it happened to inspire people.”
Lewis is hopeful and optimistic about the future generation, which he describes as smart and gifted in their work towards better race relations.
“The struggle to redeem the soul of America is not a struggle that last for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, or one semester,” said Lewis. “It is the struggle of a lifetime.”
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