As a young boy growing up in rural Alabama in the 1940s, Congressman John Lewis remembers hearing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio and feeling inspired to make a positive difference.
Today, Lewis is described as a human rights visionary, the conscience of the U.S. Congress, and the “boy from Troy” – a nickname given to him when he met King in 1958. And now, he also is known as Dr. Lewis, after receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree March 31 at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Though his parents urged him to stay out of trouble as a young man, he politely disagreed. “We must find a way to get in the way,” Lewis said, encouraging OWU students to vote and stay involved, “to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”
During his visit to OWU, Lewis shared stories of his experiences as a Civil Rights leader including his participation in sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, taking Freedom Rides on buses throughout the South, and leading more than 600 peaceful protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
“Our struggle is not a struggle of one year,” he said during a question-and-answer session after his presentation. “It is a struggle of a lifetime, and we have to give it all we have.”
President Rock Jones presented Lewis with an honorary degree and described the Congressman as exemplifying determination and dignity, passion and purpose. The Rev. Myron McCoy ’77, OWU Trustee-at-Large, also spoke during the ceremony, and Dr. Michael Flamm, professor of history, introduced Lewis.
“By sitting down … they stood up,” Flamm said, referring to Lewis and other Civil Rights leaders. Flamm told the crowd that Lewis had been arrested more than 40 times as he fought for equality and had been beaten so severely that he suffered a cracked skull. Flamm called Lewis a “personal hero and inspiration.”
Lewis is the last survivor of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. He has devoted his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he calls “The Beloved Community” in America.
In 1986, he was elected to Congress and has served as the U.S. Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District for nearly 30 years. Currently, he is Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House, a member of the House Ways & Means Committee, a member of its Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, and Ranking Member of its Subcommittee on Oversight.
During his speech, Lewis said he remained optimistic and had seen much positive change during his life, including receiving an apology in 2009 from one of the men who had beaten him 50 years earlier.
“Come and walk in my shoes,” Lewis told audience members who expressed frustration over changes still needed to enhance equality. “I will show you change.”
With multiple standing ovations, Lewis’s message of love and hope for the future was heard loud and clear.