A hero who stands tall for equal rights spoke in honor of Black History Month at Kentucky State University Wednesday.
Congressman John Robert Lewis, the last living member of the Big Six leaders of the civil rights movement, spoke to KSU students, faculty and staff, local high school students and others from the community about his life and how important it is to stand up for one’s beliefs.
The lawmaker — who is also the last living speaker from the historic March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech — was elected to congress in 1986 and has served as the U.S. representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District ever since.
Lewis said the Montgomery bus boycott and hearing King speak on the radio inspired him to join the civil rights movement.
Because of such actions, he said, this country has seen great changes in the past 50 years.
“Come and walk in my shoes, and I’ll show you change,” Lewis said. “Our country is a better country; our people are better people.”
He said when he would ask his parents as a child why black people had to sit in the balconies at shows and the white people sat on the lower level, his family would tell him not to get in the way and to not get in trouble.
Against his families’ preference, Lewis said he decided he was going to get in the way and get into “necessary trouble” to be a part of the movement.
The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis began fighting for equal rights at a young age. At 16, he led several siblings to the library, where they attempted to register for a library card before being told only white people were issued cards.
In 1961, Lewis participated in the “Freedom Rides,” challenging segregation at interstate bus terminals across the south, and in 1965, he helped spearhead a march that was intended to go from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
As the only remaining member of the Big Six — King, Lewis, James Farmer, Lewis A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young — he said it’s his duty to carry on what other civil rights leaders have done.
“I feel like I have an obligation, a mission and a mandate to continue,” he said.
Lewis, who has been arrested more than 40 times and has been beaten and spat on for standing up for his beliefs, said it’s worth it for the change it will bring.
“I felt so free, I felt so liberated, I felt like I’d crossed over,” Lewis said of the first time he was arrested. “It’s like it’s another down payment on helping to change our country.”
Lewis told the audience a story of being at his aunt’s home when a storm rolled in and the wind was threatening to knock the shotgun-style house over. Lewis and other family members would run back and forth in the house to stand on the corners that were blowing up in order to hold the house down.
Just like that house, Lewis said, everyone is in this together.
“You must never ever leave the house. You must never ever give up,” he said.
“We are one house, we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters.”
He also spoke about the importance of the voting process.
“I’ve always said that the vote is sacred,” he said.
The congressman told several stories from his life and offered lots of advice to students.
“If you believe in something, stand up for it,” he said.
He encouraged people to speak up, get into necessary trouble, get in the way and leave the planet a cleaner and better place than they found it.
“Vote and don’t forget those that come after you,” Lewis said.
After Lewis was finished speaking he sat down with freshmen Leanna Trombley and Ralph Williams, who asked him some questions before he was presented with the KSU Medal of Honor.
Also, Colman Elridge III, executive assistant to the Gov. Steve Beshear, thanked Lewis for his dedication to civil rights and for coming to Kentucky, and declared him a Kentucky Colonel.