Civil rights icon John Lewis called on the University of Mary Washington class of 2011 to build a better society, urging the graduates to challenge injustices as he delivered the undergraduate commencement address on Saturday, May 7.
“You must stand up. You must speak up. You must speak out,” said Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia. “You must create a world community at peace with itself.”
Lewis, a 1961 Freedom Rider, praised the university for its three-month tribute to the Freedom Rides and to their architect, the late civil rights leader James Farmer who taught at Mary Washington. The Freedom Rides successfully defied segregated interstate bus travel and facilities in the South.
“No other college in America is pausing like you have to celebrate and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides,” he said. “I come here to say thank you, thank you.”
“The University of Mary Washington is a bright light in the education of all of our citizens about the issues of civil rights, human rights and social justice,” he said. “You have discovered that the cause of civil rights is not just the legacy of…one people, but all Americans. We all must play a role in helping to build a just and open society.”
Lewis spoke to about 5.000 people, including graduates, family members, friends and faculty, gathered in Ball Circle for the 100th annual commencement. The university awarded a total of 1,295 degrees in the May 7 undergraduate ceremony and the May 6 graduate ceremony, including 450 bachelor of arts degrees, 42 bachelor of liberal studies degrees, 92 bachelor of professional studies degrees and 459 bachelor of science degrees, as well as 252 master’s degrees.
In his remarks, Lewis recalled his upbringing in Alabama. Born to sharecroppers in 1940, he attended segregated public schools. “Whites only” signs were commonplace. “As a young child, I tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and racial discrimination,” Lewis said. When he questioned his parents about segregation, they said “that’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”
But as a teenager, Lewis was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. aired on radio broadcasts “as if he were speaking to me…to get involved.” In those pivotal moments, Lewis made a decision to become a part of the Civil Rights movement.
“I got in trouble,” he said. “It was good trouble. Necessary trouble. James (Farmer) and the Freedom Riders 50 years ago got in trouble. Necessary trouble. Good trouble to bring down those signs that said ‘white men, colored men, white women, colored women.’ Those signs are gone and they will not return.”
“Your children, the only place they’ll see those signs is in a book, in a museum, on a video. We live in a better country. We’re on our way to the creation of a beloved community where we can lay down the burden of race and create a society where we can forget about race.”
Lewis was a student at Fisk University when he organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn. At 21, he “had all my hair and was a few pounds lighter” when he joined the Freedom Rides, he recalled. Lewis endured vicious beatings at the hands of angry mobs and, in all, more than 40 arrests for challenging segregation. Yet he remained a devoted advocate of nonviolence.
“You must never ever give up. You must never ever give in,” he said. “Get out there and push and pull, and do your part to create a loving community in redeeming the soul of America. You can do it. You must do it.”
During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Lewis helped organize and chair the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that was responsible for coordinating student activism. He was a young man when he was deemed one of the “Big Six” leaders of the movement along with King and Farmer.
Farmer, who taught history at Mary Washington for about a dozen years, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton in 1998. This year, Lewis himself received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, who as Lewis noted was born the year of the 1961 Rides.
In concluding his remarks, Lewis urged the graduates to make a commitment to justice, no matter how difficult the path.
“My friends, the storms may come. The winds may blow. The thunder may roll. The lightning may flash. And the rain may be beat down on our old house. Call it the house of UMW,” Lewis said. “Call it the house of Virginia. Call it the house of Georgia or California or New York. Call it the house of Alabama. Call it the American house. We all live in the same house.”
“I say to you as you leave this university, as you leave this little piece of real estate, you still have the power to change the social, economic and political structures around you. You still have the power to lead a nonviolent revolution of values and ideas in your community and around the world. If you use that power, if you use your education, use your talent, use your skills, use that power, then a new and better world is yours to build.”
“So I say to you today, walk with the wind. Let the spirit of history, the spirit of UMW, and the spirit of the Freedom Rides be your guide.”
Following the address, Daniel K. Steen, rector of the university’s Board of Visitors, conferred an honorary doctor of humane letters degree on Lewis.
He has been awarded over 50 honorary degrees from universities throughout the United State. He also holds a B.A. in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, and he is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville, Tennessee.
Lewis was elected to Congress in 1986 and has served as U.S. representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since then. He is Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House and is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and chairman of its Subcommittee on Oversight.
Two years ago, Lewis was visited in his office by a man who had encountered Lewis on May 9, 1961 in Rock Hill, S.C. The man, who was a Klansman in 1961, had beaten Lewis that day in South Carolina. Nearly 48 years later, the man came to apologize to Lewis and to ask for forgiveness.
“He started crying. He gave me a hug. I started crying and I hugged him back,” Lewis said. “That is what the movement was all about – to build a sense of community. We all live in the same house because we are one people.”