Civil Rights activists John Lewis and James Zwerg will be recognized with honorary Doctor of Humane Letter degrees at this year’s commencement ceremony on June 14. Both were members of the original 13 “Freedom Riders,” who rode on the interstate bus from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans in protest of the government’s unwillingness to enforce the Supreme Court rulings declaring bus segregation unconstitutional.
Congressman Lewis, who headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the peak of the American Civil Rights Movement, is the only surviving member of the “Big Six” Civil Rights leaders, placing him among the ranks of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young. This year’s commencement will be his third visit to Lawrence after a speech at the university’s 1964 Civil Rights Week and his Feb. 2005 convocation, titled “Get in the Way.”
Lewis has been a representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional district since 1986 and helped to organize the historic 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. As a student at Fisk University, he organized sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn. to protest segregation.
Zwerg, an Appleton native, met Lewis while on a one-semester exchange program at Fisk University from his alma mater, Beloit College. He joined SNCC along with Lewis and participated in lunch counter sit-ins and movie theater stand-ins. Zwerg was one of ten Freedom Riders awarded with the prestigious Freedom Award by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1961.
Lewis will deliver the principal address at the 165th graduation ceremony. This weekend, Mar. 6-8, Lewis will be part of a delegation of over 90 members of congress who will visit Alabama for ceremonies commemorating the 50 anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when state troopers attacked marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus bridge. Lewis is the only person to have received the John F. Kennedy “Profile In Courage Award” for lifetime achievement.