John Lewis was 25 years old when he led 600 marchers to Montgomery, Ala. across the now-infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge on Mar. 7, 1965.
A student from Fisk University, the young activist had peace in mind when he set out on what would be recorded in history as “Bloody Sunday.”
Lewis, a Freedom Rider and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was aware, long before he was knocked unconscious that day by state troopers, that police officers could turn into violent, hate-fueled mobs in the South.
Now, after more than 40 years, 40 arrests, and 14 terms as a Democrat representing Georgia in the House of Representatives, he remains devoted to improving the human condition, a calling for which he believes he was preordained.
“I had no idea that one day I would be involved in American politics,” Lewis told the AFRO, after a Nov. 13 speech at Coppin State University. “I thought I would be a minister, a pastor in the church- but I feel like the spirit led me and said ‘This is the way you must go.’
“You cannot get tired or weary even when you don’t feel like going. We all have roles to play in life and we should play those parts.”
Roughly one hundred people gathered inside Coppin State’s Talon Center for a three-hour appearance by the lawmaker and civil rights veteran who talked about his life, his work, and a book rooted in his days in the civil rights movement.
Born into a family of sharecroppers, Lewis said he has come a long way from his Troy, Ala. beginnings. The man who, as a boy, raised chickens, cows, hogs, and helped sell peanuts to feed six brothers and three sisters has seen a lot change in his 72 years, and dares anyone to say different.
It was the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King on a radio, making a call for peaceful action, that steered a then-17-year-old Lewis into using civil disobedience as a means to presss for equal education, pay, housing, and respect.
Two years later the teenager was helping desegregate lunch counters.
The congressman spoke of being spat upon, beaten, and arrested as part of the civil rights movement pressing for the right to vote, to eat in any restaurant and to attend any school.
“I felt free. I felt liberated. I felt like I had crossed over,” he said, speaking about his first booking for attempting to desegregate a downtown Nashville, Tenn. Woolworth’s store on Feb. 27, 1960.
Lewis recalled a night in Rock Hill, S.C. when, in the wake of a 1961 Supreme Court ruling to integrate interstate travel facilities, he and a group of students pressing for equal access to a Greyhound bus station, were attacked by a white mob.
By 23, Lewis was the youngest of ten speakers to address the more than 250,000 gathered for the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lewis detailed how civil rights marches on Washington and Selma were organized, and vividly recalled his time with King and conversations with President John F. Kennedy.
“I had read about [Lewis’] struggle but hearing everything first hand… there’s nothing like hearing it from the person who actually lived it,” said Angela Gaither-Scott, who works on recruitment and retention in the School of Education. She said the event had special meaning because she recalled attending a segregated elementary school as a child.
“I think it is so important to know your history- especially with the current election,” said Gaither-Scott, 60. “I am one hundred percent sure that Barack Obama wouldn’t be president today if it wasn’t for John Lewis.”
The appearance came as the second part of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lecture series currently being hosted by the CSU Department of Applied Social and Political Sciences at Coppin State University.
“This is a historic moment in our lives, our ancestors have worked so hard for us not to continue the legacy,” said Dr. Harriett Kargbo, an assistant professor in the Department of Adult and General Education.
“When we have a living icon coming out to tell us about our history we need to make sure that we are present to get the first hand information.”
According to the Library of Congress’ records for Bloody Sunday, the ABC Television network interrupted a broadcast of a documentary on the Nazi war crimes tribunals to show footage of Alabama police using brute force to block civil rights marchers.
As a direct result of the televised footage of the violence that day, public pressure forced the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“All things work together for the good because those images created a movement,” said Dr. Claudia Nelson, assistant professor of political science at Coppin.
“When I think of the honor- I think of him in the context of forefathers and foremothers who have gone before us- Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, ” said Nelson. “I think of him the context of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King.
After his speech, Lewis answered questions about his support of same-sex marriage and his reaction to seeing a Black man elected president twice.
Dean Ron L. Collins of the school’s honors college applauded Lewis for his “unmatched record of standing tall and being resolute on human rights issues of every variety.”
“We honor you for placing your life on the land time and time again,” he said.
“Where would this nation be today without a Civil Rights Act? Ponder that thought over dinner, or while enjoying a latte inside a Starbucks.”