Friday, November 9, 2001
Human rights icon John Lewis speaks at CCHS
"Hold on to your dreams, do what you can to make our country, our society, a better place." Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), holder of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize and the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, spoke these words to the full student body of Concord-Carlisle High School in a presentation on November 5. Social studies teacher Joe Zellner, who was instrumental in arranging Congressman Lewis's visit as part of the school's Second Annual Distinguished Speaker lecture series, began by introducing Massachusetts Congressman Marty Meehan. Meehan said he was delighted to welcome his fellow congressman to Concord, saying Lewis is "one of the leaders of the twenty-first century." Noting that Lewis has fought for economic justice, Meehan added, "Democracy only works when people like you speak out for what is just."
'Cheat on the setting hens'
"I was raised on a farm in Troy, Alabama and in 1944 my daddy bought 110 acres of land," Lewis began, and from the beginning of his speech to the end his audience was thoroughly attentive. He spoke of his early years, of his nine siblings, of raising cotton, corn, hogs, chickens, cows and especially peanuts, lots of peanuts. To this day, "I still refuse those little packages of nuts they push on the airplanes." He said as a child he would practice preaching, using the chickens as his congregation. He thought of being a minister, but chose not to because he felt bad that he had to "cheat on the setting hens," using them as incubators since his family couldn't afford a mechanical one. He did note that perhaps the chickens were sometimes more productive than members of Congress: "At least the chickens produced eggs."
Marched with Martin Luther King
He attended Fisk University. He began to organize peaceful non-violent protests in the south to end racial discrimination. In 1958, when he was 18, he was invited to Montgomery, Alabama, to meet Martin Luther King, Jr. He became a participant in the Freedom Rides: buses filled with black and white passengers testing desegregation in interstate transportation. In June 1963 he attended a meeting with Rev. King and President John F. Kennedy to discuss a planned March on Washington. He said he remembers President Kennedy being worried about the march and Rev. King assuring the President that it would be peaceful. At the march in August 1963, Lewis witnessed Rev. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech and gave a moving and powerful speech of his own to over 250,000 people. He was only 23 years old.
Bloody Sunday attack
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, ensuring equality for all without regard to race or color. Lewis was at the time working on organizing minority voter registration drives. In many counties, voter registration was such an onerous procedure that very few minority citizens were able to register to vote. On March 7, 1965, he led a protest march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to bring attention to this issue. The confrontation that occurred, now known as Bloody Sunday, was violent; scores of state troopers met the marchers at the other end of the bridge and attacked the peaceful demonstrators. Lewis was hit on the head and knocked unconscious. Rev. King visited him in the hospital and then issued a plea to religious leaders around the country to join him in another march across the Pettus Bridge. In August 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed.
'Our love for freedom'
"I got arrested 40 times," Lewis said to the gasps of the crowd, "but I never gave up." He said the events of September 11 had affected us all. He ended his speech by saying, "They may bomb our buildings but they will never kill our love for freedom, our love for an open society." He received a standing ovation, and many students waited patiently afterwards to shake his hand, thank him for the talk, and get his autograph.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito