A legendary member of the American Civil Rights movement inspired an audience with advice and anecdotes from a remarkable life after receiving an honorary degree from Ohio Wesleyan University.
John Lewis, the longtime “conscience of the Congress” from Georgia, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, OWU’s highest recognition, at Gray Chapel on March 31.
“I accept this degree on behalf of those who never gave up,” Lewis said. At 74, he is the last surviving member of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
His stirring talk began with childhood memories of growing up in Troy, Alabama. As a youngster, Lewis wanted to be a minister, and preached to his siblings and the chickens he raised.
“I am convinced some of chickens listened to me better than my colleagues in Congress do today,” he observed.
The words and actions of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks inspired Lewis as a teen. At 17, he wrote a letter to Martin Luther King, who, upon meeting him, referred to Lewis as “the boy from Troy.”
Appalled at the racial segregation and inequalities of the early 1960s, Lewis said, “I found a way to get in the way. To get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
That way was non-violent resistance, which resulted in Lewis being called names, spat upon, being burned with cigarettes, arrested, and being beaten. At one point, Lewis wondered why President Lyndon Johnson was sending troops to Vietnam and not to Selma, Alabama.
Yet by not striking back and keeping their eyes on the prize, the racist Jim Crow laws were overturned by the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965).
“Call me anything you want, throw me in jail. I will overcome,” Lewis said. “I don’t think there’s any room in American society for discrimination.”
Lewis said that one of the men who beat him up visited him at his office more than 50 years after the incident, apologized and asked for forgiveness.
“We cried, we hugged, we called each other brothers,” he said. “That’s the power of non-violence. People say things haven’t changed. Come and walk in my shoes, and I will show you change.”
Despite the changes, Lewis said “there’s still work to be done” before America truly becomes what he calls a “multiracial, multicultural democratic society.”
He advised those seeking change to stand up, speak out, be optimistic, keep the faith, never be bitter and to use an expression from Dr. King, just love everybody.
“Hate is too heavy a burden to bear,” Lewis said. “The way of love is a better way. Our struggle is the struggle of a lifetime. We have to give it all we have. If you see something that’s not right, try to do something about it.”
Among those things was to vote for change.
“People gave their blood for the right to vote. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have. If you don’t vote, we don’t count.”
Lewis also objected to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act.
“Voting should be as simple as picking up a glass of water,” Lewis said as he took a sip.