Long before he came to Capitol Hill, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was active in the fight for freedom. On Sept. 17, he paid homage to the nation’s progress in treating all of its citizens’ equally in a program that celebrated the 150th anniversary of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
He spoke, appropriately, at the foot of the memorial to President Abraham Lincoln, the man who issued the order on Sept. 22, 1862, freeing enslaved Americans, and effective Jan. 1, 1863.
“Slavery was an affront to human dignity,” Lewis (D-Ga.) told the crowd. “It was an evil, ungodly, dehumanizing system. It did not matter that it lasted over 300 years, it was bound to fail. It could never last because it violated one eternal truth. We’re one people, one family, the American family. We live in the same house, the American house, the world house.”
Hundreds of people gathered to hear Lewis speak about the hard-fought battle from slavery to freedom. The event, dubbed The Celebrating Freedom event, was co-sponsored by Howard University and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The event held in conjunction with NEH’s Emancipation Nation commemoration of the 150th anniversary and coincided with Constitution Day, which mandates that on September 17th all federally funded educational institutions study the U.S. Constitution.
The hour-long ceremony featured several speakers, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Oscar-nominated actress Alfre Woodard and Dr. Wayne Frederick, Howard’s provost and CAO. Afro Blue, the Howard University jazz choir, stirred the crowd with song. The program was presented in three sections: Longing for Freedom, Emancipation and Being Free.
Woodard, who is known for her roles in Miss Ever’s Boys and Desperate Housewives, is a long-time activist and member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. She recited passages from Harriet Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and Charlotte Forten’s “Emancipation Day,” accompanied by harmonica player Sais Kamalidiin and interpretative dancer Christen Williams.
Woodard was visibly moved as Howard student and saxophonist Ashton Vines performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
“What was running through my mind (was) 350 years of history and history in terms of bodies and relatives and people,” she said. “ The history of souls, the history of watching those children stand here. Just the fact that we’re still here and we’re still coming on.”
It was apropos that Lewis gave the keynote address. He has served in Congress since 1987. He was active in the Civil Rights Movement in the1960s and was one of the original 13 original Freedom Riders. He led the protest in 1965 where police officers in Selma, Ala., attacked non-violent marchers in what later became known as Bloody Sunday. In 2011, he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The site of the speech was the spot where Lewis, in 1963, joined with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., several other civil rights leaders and millions of Americans for the historic March on Washington.
Forty-nine years later, Lewis spoke from those same steps about the freedom struggle.
“If someone said nothing has changed, I would say come and walk in my shoes and I will show you change,” he said. “Almost 50 years ago I came here and stood on those steps with Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Back then we had a dream, that dream is in the process of being realized. So we must never, ever give up on our march toward complete freedom.”
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