Growing up in segregated Pike County, Alabama, John Lewis first heard the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) listening to the family’s radio. The son of sharecroppers, Lewis was inspired by King’s message of social change to join the nascent civil rights movement after enrolling at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Lewis went on to become one of the movement’s most important leaders.
Tonight the civil rights pioneer, now 70 and a Democratic congressman representing Georgia, will deliver the third annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership Lecture, sponsored by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, at 7 p.m. at the George Sherman Union’s Metcalf Ballroom.
“John Lewis is the perfect person to give the Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership Lecture, because he is the greatest example of Dr. King’s ideals for social change through redemptive sacrifice, activism, and responsible leadership,” says Vita Paladino (MET’79, SSW’93), director of the Gotlieb Center. “He remains a beacon for Dr. King’s message and is an intrepid leader, improving our nation.”
As an undergraduate, Lewis organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville. After graduating, he participated in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals throughout the South.
At the height of the civil rights movement, Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, coordinating efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs and working closely with King.
Known as one of the Big Six leaders of the civil rights movement (the others are King, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, and Roy Wilkins), Lewis spearheaded one of the movement’s most famous moments: the first of three marches from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery on behalf of voting rights in 1965. The marchers, attacked by Alabama state troopers, never made it to their destination. Indelibly captured by television cameras and still photographers, the event came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” The images from the melee were credited with hastening passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lewis was arrested more than 40 times and beaten on numerous occasions for his work on behalf of civil rights.
After serving as director of the federal volunteer agency ACTION, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council and went on to win a seat in Congress in 1986. For more than two decades, he has represented Georgia’s fifth congressional district. He currently is a member of the influential House Ways and Means Committee.
Outgoing Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called Lewis “the conscience of the U.S. Congress.”
Widely respected by his peers on Capitol Hill for his lifelong battle to secure civil liberties and protect human rights, Lewis will speak tonight about King’s influence on American society and his own role in the civil rights movement.
The mission of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Lecture series is to bring to campus those who have served “as leaders in the quest for maintaining social justice and human rights.” Past lecturers were Christine King Farris, King’s sister, and Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero memorably portrayed by Don Cheadle in the film Hotel Rwanda.
Paladino believes that Lewis’ life story may inspire young people on campus. “He can enlighten and encourage our students on how to be responsible for building an even stronger nation during their lifetime,” she says. “The evolutionary process and work toward social equality is ongoing. This is what Dr. King stood for.”
Also being honored at tonight’s lecture is civil rights activist Diane Nash, who has been named the 2010 Coretta Scott King Fellow.
The Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership Lecture is tonight, Wednesday, November 10, at 7 p.m. in the Metcalf Ballroom at the George Sherman Union, 775 Commonwealth Ave. The event is free and open to the public.
John O’Rourke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.