|College Conference: John Lewis, Civil Rights leader, to college students: “Find your passion”|
|Written by Catherine Williams, OUTLOOK special correspondent|
|Monday, 05 January 2009 17:14|
MONTREAT, N.C.—Rep. John Lewis, the Democratic congressman elected by the state of Georgia, felt his calling early in life. When he was 8 or 9 years old he began to preach in the chicken yard of his home in Troy, Ala.
“From time to time, with the help of my brothers and sisters and first cousin, we would gather all the chickens together in the chicken yard—like you are gathered here,” Lewis said Sunday afternoon, January 4, to the college students and community members gathered at the 2009 College Conference at Montreat Conference Center. In the 1940s and 50s, his chickens and family members listened to Lewis’ earliest sermons. But in May of 1957, Lewis wrote his first letter to Martin Luther King Jr., and he met him several months later, jump-starting a life dedicated to the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Six years later, he spoke to a gathering of hundreds of thousands in Washington, D.C.|
During his keynote address Sunday, Lewis shared his own story, the details of which are closely woven into the familiar historical accounts of the movement.
After meeting Dr. King, Lewis became involved in the nonviolent sit-ins in Nashville, Tenn., then in the Freedom Rides in Mississippi, the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and the 1963 march to the capital.
“I remember as a young person,” he said, “the first time I got arrested on February the 27th, 1960—because I had always been told over and over again, ‘Don’t get in trouble.’
But the day I got arrested and went to jail, I felt free. I felt liberated. I felt like I had crossed over.”
Lewis explained that these sit-ins and nonviolent protests were carefully planned and all the participants were prepared for opposition.
“We didn’t just wake up one morning and say we were going to sit in. We didn’t just wake up one morning and say we were going to Freedom Ride. … Every Tuesday night at 6 p.m. a group of young people … studied what Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa, what he accomplished in India. We studied Thoreau and civil disobedience. We studied what Martin Luther King was all about. … By sitting down, by sitting in, we were standing up for the very best in American tradition.”
Lewis was marching for this tradition on March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday” for the violence that broke out on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. He started the march toward Birmingham with a backpack containing two books, two pieces of fruit, and a toothbrush, in preparation for his certain arrest. When police stopped the march six blocks later, Lewis was beaten so badly that he awoke in a hospital.
But Lewis is not resentful of those who hurt and jailed him during his years in the movement. “I don’t have time to hate,” he said. “I don’t have time to be bitter. There are too many other wonderful things you can do in this world. … If someone is beating me, I see that person as a fellow human being. If you start hating, reacting in anger, it tends to lure you, and it leads to debasing — not only the person that’s doing the attacking, but you’re debasing yourself.”
Lewis encouraged his audience to move forward, embracing the new hope of today, and finding guidance in the Holy Spirit and the spirit of history.
“Find your passion. Find that issue; find that cause. Find a way to help save this little planet … not just for us, but for generations yet unborn. That is our calling. That is our mission. That is our obligation, not just to look out for ourselves, but to look out for all humankind.”