Civil rights icon John Lewis speaks at Kellogg Center
As the crowd applauded thunderously, civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis was named the newest recipient of the Spartan Statesmanship award Monday night at the Kellogg Center as part of the Governor Jim Blanchard Public Service Forum.
Lewis, a congressman representing Georgia’s 5th district, is a legendary figure in the history of the civil rights movement, having marched at Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and participated in the Freedom Rides.
His invitation to MSU was to be the third annual keynote speaker for the Governor Jim Blanchard Public Service Forum. The forum began two years ago through a $1 million grant from former Michigan Governor Jim Blanchard and his wife. Blanchard is a Spartan alumnus.
Previous Blanchard Forum keynote speakers include former President Bill Clinton and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
Blanchard presented Lewis with a Spartan Statesmanship award in the form of a statuette of Sparty, and welcomed Lewis as an “honorary Spartan.”
The two then launched into a wide-ranging interview in front of the sold-out convention hall in the Kellogg Center, covering topics from civil rights to climate change, to immigration, to how to work through political divisions.
Lewis told the crowd about his time in the civil rights movement, specifically the attempted “Bloody Sunday” March in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. Lewis described the moment when a squad of Alabama state troopers attacked the peaceful marchers.
“Those troopers came toward us, beating us with nightsticks,” Lewis said. “I saw death. I thought I was going to die.”
He recalled a colleague after the march asking “I don’t understand how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam, but not to Selma, Alabama.”
Lewis said that he felt he had to march because of the injustices being perpetrated against African-Americans at the time.
“People had been arrested, jailed, beaten,” Lewis said. “We had to do something.”
Lewis expressed hopes that his story inspires young people who see injustice in the world to stand up and do something.
“When you see something that is not right, you have to speak up,” Lewis said.
Using a favorite phrase of his, he implored activists to “Get in necessary trouble.” He pointed to the fact that before he began his career as a congressman, he was arrested more than 40 times during various demonstrations and protests. He also said that since he became a congressman, he has been arrested five more times.
Lewis and Blanchard discussed their concerns with current politics in America. Lewis expressed worries that past progress in civil rights and civil liberties is being reversed. He said that to combat this, activists have to be “headlights, not taillights.”
“You got to get out there and stand up for what is right and fair and just,” Lewis said.
Lewis previously visited MSU in August 2014 as part of One Book, One Community.