Getting in the way
Rep. John Lewis, from Georgia’s 5th District, spoke to a full house in Prosser Auditorium on March 29. Lewis is this year’s Peace and Justice Visiting Scholar and was presented with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree after his lecture.
Robert Mayer, professor in the education department, introduced Rep. Lewis with a review of his accomplished history: Lewis was a member of the Freedom Riders, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, organized voter registration drives; was one of the Big Six leaders of the civil rights movement (which included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and helped spearhead the march into Selma, Alabama, which hastened the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was elected in 1986 to the Congressional seat he still holds.
Rep. Lewis acknowledged his journey from sharecropper’s son who used to practice his oratory skills on the barnyard chickens and his numerous cousins and siblings, to a leader in Congress, who is respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and who has the ear of President Obama.
“I remember the signs that divided us then—white, colored—the bitter fruits of segregation and discrimination,” Lewis said. “When I asked my parents, ‘Why?’ they always said, ‘That’s just the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.’”
But Lewis proceeded to do both, as he learned about Rosa Parks and listened to Rev. King on the radio. “I was inspired and I found a way to get in trouble—good and necessary trouble,” he said. “And it’s time again to do this.”
He continued to encourage students and adults, alike, to “get in the way” to put themselves out to fight for the less fortunate and the disenfranchised. “Be courageous. Get in the way.” He also encouraged the route of civil disobedience, of nonviolent protest. As one who studied the actions and words of Gandhi and Thoreau and was trained in the ways of nonviolence, he and his fellow protestors endured having hot beverages thrown on them, cigarettes put out in their hair, and being spat on while sitting at white-only lunch counters in 1960. Yet they never struck back.
“Nonviolence became my way of living. The means and ends become inseparable,” he said.
“We must be consistent and redeem the soul of America. We must struggle against bad laws, customs and traditions, and we must do our part to make the country and world better,” he added. “Hunger and poverty leave many behind. It is our moral obligation to do our part, and you are called to be leaders, to be headlights and not tail lights.”
At the conclusion of his speech, Rep. Lewis took questions from the audience, then was presented with his honorary doctorate by President Christopher Thomforde and Dean Gordy Weil. Photos from the event are available here.