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U.S. Rep. John Lewis Speaks on Politics and Civil Rights

Lewis told students to be active citizens

By Riddhi Sarkar | 11/19/17 11:05pm | Updated 11/29/17 11:25pm
Elise Moore / American Word Magazine

U.S. Representative John Lewis of Georgia’s fifth congressional district spoke to American University students about his journey of growing up in segregated rural Alabama to becoming a civil rights leader and politician in a speech last night.

The event was hosted by AU’s Intercultural Greek Collective (IGC) and Kennedy Political Union. In his speech, Lewis stressed the need for students to always be optimistic, politically engaged and do their part in making the world a better place.

Lewis said when he decided to run for office, he was told by many that he would not win. He did not let that stop him and encouraged students to enter politics despite what others may think about their decision.

“Get involved in a political campaign, run for office,” Lewis said. “You can do it, be brave — if anyone else can do it, you can do it.”

Lewis spoke to the audience about using voting as a nonviolent tool to make change in their communities.

“The ballot is the the most powerful instrument that we have, and we should use it,” Lewis said. “People died for it.”

In an interview prior to the event, Lewis spoke to American Word about how the sacrifices made during the civil rights movement must continue to be recognized.

“I think it’s important for young people — especially for students, who are so smart, becoming well-educated — to know about the history of the struggle for justice, for freedom, for what is right and fair,” Lewis said.

He also said that meeting and working with civil rights figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. had a huge influence on him. Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at the time of the 1963 March on Washington. At the age of 23, he was the youngest speaker at the event.

“Working with Rosa Parks and Dr. King made me the person that I am today,” Lewis said. “If it hadn’t been for them, I don’t know what would have happened to me or happened to America.”

In his speech, Lewis talked about an incident in 1961 when he was arrested, jailed and beaten by members of the Klu Klux Klan in South Carolina. One of the members who had beaten him came to Lewis’ office on Capitol Hill with his son to apologize a few years back. Lewis forgave him and said they hugged each other with tears in their eyes.

“Hate is too heavy a burden to bear,” Lewis said. “We have to respect the dignity and the worth of every human being — that’s what the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence is all about.”

Alia Carlton, a first year student in the School of Public Affairs and one of the attendees at the event, is from Lewis’ constituency and had heard him speak at the Women’s March in Atlanta that he led back in January. She enjoyed hearing him speak again and said that Lewis’ message of hope is a powerful one that she will carry with her.

“He is the most inspirational speaker I have ever heard,” Carlton said. “Based on our current political climate, I think it’s easy to be discouraged, but seeing someone who’s been physically beaten and arrested so many times in his life be that resilient is very inspiring.”

Another first year SPA student, Bilal Aksoy, who wants to pursue a career in politics, said he was left speechless after listening to Lewis talk about his experiences from the 1960’s, especially the pain and torture he had endured. He said Lewis’ words reminded him of racial tension he has witnessed on AU’s campus but is hopeful about the University continuing its journey to a more inclusive future.

“We have racist events on campus, and that shouldn’t happen,” Aksoy said. “We’re fighting towards a better world and a better America.”