Civil Rights icon to address College
- Published: June 25, 2015
Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1965, the Rev. Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Yellow Springs to deliver the commencement address at Antioch College, the alma mater of his wife, Coretta Scott King.
Earlier that same spring, Rev. King had been in Selma, Ala., as voting rights efforts there coalesced into what would become one of the watershed moments of the Civil Rights Movement. An attempt to highlight racial injustice and voter inequality by peacefully marching from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery turned bloody when unarmed participants were beaten by law enforcement officers. The violence of what would become known as Bloody Sunday, along with the related killings of civil rights supporters, shocked the nation. After an aborted second march, a third attempt, under the protection of federal troops, took place successfully March 21–25.
At the steps of the Alabama Capitol, King spoke: “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. … I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take.’ I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by then President Lyndon Johnson later that summer.
Standing with King at the Alabama Capitol in 1965 was John Lewis, a young Alabama native who also had been with King and was the youngest speaker during the 1963 March on Washington. Lewis was one of the principal leaders of the Bloody Sunday march, the effects of which drew in King’s participation.
“Facing the Challenge of a New Age” was the title of the commencement address King gave to Antioch graduates amidst that tumultuous time.
Now, as Antioch College graduates its first class since reopening, and the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches and passage of the Voting Rights Act, the college welcomes U.S. Rep. John Lewis to campus as its 2015 commencement speaker.
The Congressman representing Georgia’s Fifth District, which includes Atlanta, in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1986, Rep. Lewis has faced the challenges of his age since his childhood as the son of a sharecropper. Inspired by King and the Montgomery bus boycott, news of which he followed as a youth on the radio, he went off to Fisk University in Nashville, determined to be part of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement. In Nashville, he joined the lunch counter sit-ins, and in 1961, he became part of the Freedom Rides, an initiative that challenged segregation at bus stations across the South and which nearly cost him his life. Repeatedly beaten by angry mobs, he was also arrested for challenging the Jim Crow laws of the time.
From 1963 to 1966, Lewis served as Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In that role, he also coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.
After leaving SNCC in 1966, Lewis continued to work for human rights causes. He eventually entered politics in 1981 as the newly elected member of the Atlanta City Council.
He’s been called “one of the most courageous persons the Civil Right Movement ever produced,” as well as “the conscience of the U.S. Congress.”
Through more than 40 arrests and multiple physical attacks, some of which caused life-threatening injuries, Lewis remained — and continues to remain — a stalwart advocate of nonviolent action.
A short biographical film shown to visitors to his office in Washington, D.C., shows Lewis speaking about his longing for a world in which justice is available and equitable for all people. He tells of thinking as a child that he would become a minister, and rounding up the family’s chickens to be his congregation as he practiced his preaching.
His D.C. office bears mementos of his youth, including a large jar of jellybeans — not for eating, but as a reminder of one of the many impossible tasks Southern people of color were given when trying to register to vote under Jim Crow, one of which was to guess correctly how many jelly beans were in the jar.
Given all he has lived through, Lewis shows no bitterness or ill-will to those who hurt him. His philosophy of nonviolence and forgiveness are outlined in one of his more recent books, “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change,” published in 2012. His latest literary release is an award-winning graphic novel, “March,” which he co-authored, about the 1965 events in Selma.
“We could not be happier to have Representative John Lewis at our graduation this year,” wrote Mark Roosevelt, Antioch College president, in an email this week. “The Class of 2015 are true pioneers. They have worked hard to re-create this great institution from their first moment stepping foot on campus as students. It’s only fitting that a leader with such an indomitable spirit delivers their commencement address. We are honored and excited to welcome Congressman Lewis to Yellow Springs.”
Mila P. Cooper, director of the Coretta Scott King Center at Antioch, agreed.
“Having Representative John Lewis speak at Antioch’s commencement is incredibly significant because of our history of involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and our continuing commitment to social justice,” she wrote. “It’s perfect that we have an icon of the Civil Rights Movement and a current leader in social justice issues as the commencement speaker for our first graduating class since reopening.”
Kevin McGruder, Assistant Professor of History, wrote that Lewis’ life offers significant lessons for young people.
“I think that John Lewis’ career of activism, that began when he was the same age as our students, can help Antioch students to understand that they can make important contributions on issues that are important to them now,” McGruder wrote. “Also, Congressman Lewis’ political career demonstrates that there are ways to use the skills of grass-roots activism to bring about change through our political system as well.”
Antioch’s 2015 commencement exercises begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 20, and the community is welcome to attend the proceedings, which will take place on the campus lawn between North Hall and Main Building. Tickets are not required, but RSVPs are encouraged to ensure adequate seating. For more information, go online to http://www.antiochcollege.org/commencement.
* The writer is a freelance contributor to the News.