Dear UMW Community:
This past Friday, America lost a legend. The Honorable John Lewis, civil rights leader and U.S. Representative from Georgia for 34 years, passed away. Congressman Lewis had struggled with stage-4 pancreatic cancer for several months; he was 80 years old.
John Lewis figures prominently in the Mary Washington story. In 1961, Dr. James Farmer, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) who later became a Mary Washington professor, helped recruit 21-year-old Lewis to join 12 others on the Freedom Rides. Lewis, a college student at the time, became part of the historic movement that challenged segregation in interstate transportation facilities.
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. – John Lewis
In 2011, Rep. Lewis enthusiastically honored Dr. Farmer and the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides by serving as UMW’s commencement speaker. In addition to accepting the Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degree, Lewis gave a rousing speech in which he implored graduates to continue the fight for social justice: “You must never, ever give up; you must never ever give in. Get out there – push and pull – and do your part in creating the beloved community and redeeming the soul of America. You can do it. You must do it.”
More recently, Lewis agreed to serve as Honorary Chair of UMW’s celebration of the100th anniversary of his friend Dr. Farmer’s birth. Last November, in his official acceptance of his role with Farmer Legacy 2020, Rep. Lewis met with a small UMW delegation in his Capitol Hill office. With his celebrated warmth and humility, he spent nearly an hour with the group, asking about UMW and sharing stories.
One of his stories was about the beating he received in South Carolina during the Freedom Rides. Lewis grew quiet, then explained how, decades later, one of his attackers requested a meeting with him and asked for his forgiveness. All of us in the UMW contingent witnessed Rep. Lewis’ fierce determination to see the best in people, even when they are adrift “in a sea of despair.” There is no better moment than now to consider the power of his words.
In honor of Rep. Lewis and with our immeasurable gratitude for his service to UMW and the nation, we have included here a written tribute to John Lewis by alumnus Rich Cooper ’90, who served as a student assistant to Dr. Farmer while at Mary Washington. In addition, when the memorial service for Rep. Lewis is announced, we will schedule a virtual recognition on that day for the entire Mary Washington community to pay our respect to the life and legacy of this remarkable man.
Vice President of Equity and Access and CDO and Co-Chair, Farmer Legacy Council
Vice President for Student Affairs and Co-Chair, Farmer Legacy Council