Congressman, civil rights activist to address LU

Amanda Loder

At 11:10 on Tuesday, Feb. 8, Representative John Lewis (D-GA) will speak to the Lawrence community at the Memorial Chapel in the third convocation of the academic year. Lewis, who is serving his seventh term in Congress, has a long history of public service and activism.
Born in 1940 to rural Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis recognized the challenges posed by segregation from an early age. When he was ten years old, Lewis attempted to check out a book at the library in nearby Troy, Alabama. The librarian refused to check out the book because Lewis was black.
Despite the educational challenges posed by segregation, Lewis embraced academics, studying religion and philosophy at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. There, he took particular interest in the philosophies and protest methods of Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Later, Lewis graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary.
One of Lewis’ early efforts as a student in the civil rights movement was participation in the Freedom Riders. This group of thirteen people, comprised of both blacks and whites, boarded buses in response to the recent Supreme Court ruling making segregation on interstate transportation illegal. Despite the ruling, however, the Freedom Riders were severely beaten by angry mobs.
Although he was frequently the target of violence, Lewis persisted in his work, and by the time he was 23, Lewis headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was nationally recognized as one of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders. As the head of SNCC, Lewis actively organized sit-ins at Nashville restaurants. In 1964, Lewis helped organize the activities of Mississippi Freedom Summer, during which volunteers registered black voters in the state.
Lewis’ most dramatic action, however, took place on March 7, 1965 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Lewis, with fellow activist Hosea Williams, led 525 people in a nonviolent march. Alabama state troopers were waiting for them, however, and beat the marchers with nightsticks, trampled them with their horses, and used tear gas. The event was quickly dubbed, “Bloody Sunday.” One week later, in response to Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress. Shortly thereafter, the efforts of civil rights leaders paid off. On August 6, 1965, in response to the famous march of 25,000 protesters from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which made literacy tests and other obstacles to minority voter registration illegal.
In an interview with Seth Goddard of, Lewis advised those who would change the world to “Pace yourself. Don’t get in a hurry. The problems we are facing in the American society are not problems that were created yesterday. They were not created overnight and they’re not going to be solved in the matter of a few days or a few weeks or a few months or maybe a few years. But you have to take the long hard look and do what you can do, but do something. Be involved.” To young Americans, Lewis further advised, “You’re just too quiet. You need to make some noise. You need to agitate in a nonviolent and creative fashion.