Convocation Address, Congressman John Lewis
August 29, 2007
Thank you very much Mr. President, Chairman of the Board, Provost, members of this outstanding faculty, members of the class of 2011, other students, family members, friends and guests, my beloved sisters and brothers. Mr. President, thank you so much for this honor. I must tell you that I am delighted, very happy and very pleased to be here on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. To be here on this lake, this beautiful wonderful setting. This is a long ways from rural Alabama. I must tell you that I didn’t grow up in a big city like Geneva. I didn’t grow up in a big city like Rochester or Buffalo or NYC, Atlanta, or Washington, Los Angeles or Chicago. I grew up on a farm in rural Alabama about 50 miles from Montgomery near a little place called Troy.
My father was a sharecropper, a tenant farmer. But back in 1944 when I was four years old and I do remember when I was four, my father had saved $300 and with the $300 he bought one hundred and ten acres of land. That’s a lot of land for $300. My family still owns the land. On this farm we raised a lot of cotton and corn, peanuts, hogs, cows and chickens.
If any of you have an opportunity to come to Washington or come to Atlanta and visit my congressional office, the moment you walk through the door the first thing the staff will offer you, professor, is a Coca-Cola. Because Atlanta is the home of the Coca-Cola Company, Coca-Cola provides all members of the Georgia Congressional delegation with an adequate supply of Coca-Cola products. Every now and then I may have a diet Coke.
The next thing the staff will offer you is some peanuts. Because in the State of Georgia like in the State of Alabama we raise a lot of peanuts and the Georgia Peanut Commission provides us with a lot of peanuts. I don’t eat too many of those peanuts. I ate so many peanuts when I was growing up in rural Alabama I just don’t want to see any more peanuts. Today, this morning, when I got on the flight to fly from Atlanta to Rochester the flight attendant tried to offer me some peanuts. And I said no thank you I don’t care for any peanuts.
Some of you heard me say that on that farm we raised a lot of chickens. I would love to ask a question of the new students, the new class, the incoming freshmen. Do you know anything about raising chickens? At this great place, here on this lake here at these colleges you are very smart, you are deliberate, you know a great deal, but you don’t know anything about raising chickens.
Let me tell you what I had to do as a young child growing up in rural Alabama during the 40s and 50s. I had to take the fresh eggs, mark them with a pencil, place them under the setting hen and wait for three long weeks for the little chicks to hatch. Some smart student, some smart faculty member, yes are asking the question, John Lewis, why do you mark those fresh eggs with a pencil before you place them under the setting hen? Well, from time to time another hen would get on that same nest and there would be some more eggs and you had to be able to tell the fresh eggs from the eggs that were already under the setting hen. When these little chicks would hatch I would fool these setting hens, I would cheat on these setting hens.
I would take these little chicks and give them to another hen. I would put them in a box with a lantern, raise them on their own, get some more fresh eggs, mark them with a pencil, place them under the setting hen, encouraging these setting hens to sit on the nest for another three weeks. I kept on fooling these setting hens. And when I look back on it, it was not the right thing to do. It was not the moral thing to do. It was not the most loving thing to do. It was not the most non-violent thing to do. It was not the most democratic thing to do, but I was never quite able to save $18.98 to order the most inexpensive incubator or hatcher from the Sears and Roebuck store, so I kept on cheating on these setting hens.
We used to get the Sears and Roebucks catalog. Most of you new students are too young to know anything about it, but the Sears and Roebuck catalog was a big book, heavy book, thick book. Some people called it the wish book, I wish I had this, I wish I had that. Some people called it the watering book.
So I just kept on cheating on these setting hens. When I was a young child I became very good at raising these chickens, and I wanted to be a minister. When I was about 71/2 or 8 years old one of my uncles asked Santa Claus to bring me a bible. So with the help of my brothers and sisters and my first cousins we would gather all of our chickens together like you are gathered here on this beautiful lawn and we would have church. The chickens along with my brothers and sisters along with my first cousins would make up the congregation, and I would start speaking or preaching and when I looked back on the assembly of chickens, some would bow their heads, some of the chickens would shake their heads – they never quite said amen.
But when I think about it, the great majority of those chickens that I preached to during the forties and fifties tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today in Congress. As a matter of fact, some of those chickens were a little more productive; at least they produce eggs.
When we would visit the little town of Troy, visit Montgomery, visit Tuskegee, visit Birmingham. As a young child I saw those signs that said ‘white men’, ‘colored men’, ‘white women’, ‘colored women’, ‘white waiting’ ‘colored waiting.’ As a young child I tasted the beautiful fruits of segregation and racial discrimination and I didn’t like it.
On a Saturday afternoon with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins we would go down town to the theater and all of us little black children had to go upstairs to the balcony and all of the little white children went downstairs to the first floor. I came home and asked my mother, asked my father, my grandparents, my great grandparents, ‘why segregation, why racial discrimination?’ and they said ‘that’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.’
But, in 1955 at the age of 15 in the tenth grade I heard about Rosa Parks, I heard the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the old radio. The action of Rosa Parks, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired me to find a way to get in the way. I got in the way. I got in trouble. It was good trouble. It was necessary trouble. So I appeal to you as students, freshmen, new, sense of vigor, energy, vitality, to find a way to get in the way. Speak up, speak out and do not be quiet.
During those early years I came under the influence of that idea that concept of the beloved community: an all encompassing, all inclusive community where no one is left out or left behind. An idea that we could create a nation, a world, at peace with itself, that we could create a world free from racism, free of violence, where no one would be left out or left behind.
So I say to you, during the school year, and the years to come as you make it through the journey of life, when you encounter the ideas that breed separation in our society, you must remain committed to the beloved community. I tell you that somehow and some way I feel more than lucky, I feel very blessed that I came under the influence of this idea of the beloved community. Came under the influence where teachers taught me never to give up, never to give in, never to give out, but to keep the faith and to keep my eyes on the prize.
I stand here today, Mr. President and members of the faculty, as a living example of the power of commitment, the power of faith, and the ability of ideas to transform a nation. If someone had told me when I was preaching to those chickens, if someone had told me when we were sitting in, getting arrested, going to jail for a time, being beaten and left for dead at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, in May of 1961.
If someone had told me when I led that original march across the bridge over the Alabama River on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama that one day I would be standing here as a member of the House of Representatives, elected by the good people of Georgia, I would say you’re crazy, you’re out of your mind, you don’t know what you’re talking about.
In 1956 at the age of sixteen, so inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., so touched by Rosa Parks, so touched by what I called the spirit of history, my brothers and sisters and first cousins went down to the public library in the little town of Troy, Alabama trying to get library cards, trying to check out some books, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only.
I never went back to that library until July 5th, 1998 for a book signing of my book, Walking With The Wind. Hundreds of black and white citizens showed up. We had food, we had drink. It was like a big family reunion. I signed a lot of books and in the end they gave me a library card. It says something about the distance we’ve come and the progress that was made in America in laying down the burden of race.
Some of you student young people may ask, John Lewis, how did you meet Martin Luther King, Jr.? Well fifty years ago when I was only seventeen years old I wanted to attend a little college. I just finished high school in May, 1957 and submitted an application and my high school transcript to Troy State College now known as Troy University. I never heard a word from the school so I wrote a letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. and told Dr. King I wanted to go to Troy State College. He wrote me back and sent me a round trip Greyhound Bus ticket, inviting me to come to Montgomery.
In the meantime there was a separate little college in Nashville, Tennessee. In September, 1957 an uncle of mine gave me a hundred dollar bill, more money than I’d ever had, gave me a footlocker, I put my books, my clothing, and everything that I owned, except those chickens, and went off to Nashville. Two weeks later I told one of my teachers that I’d been in contact with Dr. King about entering Troy State College. This young professor informed Dr. King that I was in school in Nashville, they’d been students together in Morehouse College in Atlanta. Dr. King suggested that when I was home for spring break to come and see him.
On a Saturday morning in March, 1958, by this time I’m eighteen years old, my father drove me to the Greyhound bus, I boarded the bus and traveled the fifty miles from Troy to Montgomery. I arrived in downtown Montgomery and a young lawyer met me. He’d been the lawyer for Rosa Parks, drove me to the First Baptist Church and ushered me into the office of the church. I saw Martin Luther King, Jr. and a colleague of his, Matt Abernathy, standing behind a desk. I was so scared I didn’t know what to say or what to do and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke up and said, ‘Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?’ And I said, ‘Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis.’ I gave my whole name and that was the beginning of my relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. I got in the way.
A few short years ago, another generation of students, another generation of young people, started sitting in and by sitting in, by sitting down they were standing up. We ended segregation in public accommodation: lunch counters, restaurants, theatres, we went on a freedom ride, but all across the American south people could not participate in the democratic process.
As the President said, 44 years ago, yesterday it was my honor to be one of the ten speakers at the March on Washington, to be the youngest speaker. I stood there with speaker number six; Dr. King spoke, he was the tenth speaker. But I heard Martin Luther King, Jr. say that day, ‘I have a dream today deeply rooted in the American dream.’ There was so much hope, so much optimism when we left Washington to return to the south. But eighteen days later that sense of hope and optimism was shattered with the bombing of the church in Birmingham where four little girls were killed on Sunday morning.
We didn’t give up. We didn’t become bitter. We kept the faith. We went all across the south trying to gain the right to vote. In the eleven states, that old Confederacy from Virginia to Texas in many parts and many political subdivisions it was almost impossible for people of color to register to vote. You had to pass a so called ‘literacy test,’ pay a poll tax. On one occasion there was a black man teaching at Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, had a Ph.D. degree and he flunked the so-called literacy test. On another occasion a man was asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. On one occasion a man was asked to count the number of jelly beans in a jar. People stood in unmovable lines.
My organization, The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, better known as SNCC, organized something called the Mississippi Summer Project. We traveled all across the country recruiting students, lawyers, teachers, doctors, ministers, priests, rabbis and nuns to come and work that summer. The summer night of June 21, 1964 three young men that I knew, Andy Goodman, Mickey Schreiner from New York City, James Shaney, from Mississippi, went out to investigate the burning of an African American church to be used for voter registration workshop. These three young men detained by the sheriff, arrested, taken to jail, later that night taken to jail by the sheriff, turned over to the Klan where they were beaten, shot and killed.
These three young men didn’t die in the Middle East. They didn’t die in Eastern Europe. They didn’t die in Africa. They didn’t die in Central or South America. They died right here in our country trying to get all of our citizens to be participants in the democratic process.
We didn’t give up. We kept the faith. We continued to get in the way. On July 2nd, 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He won a landslide election in November of ’64, in December Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize. He came back to America welcomed by a large delegation in New York City, and then down on to Washington, D.C. where he met with President Johnson. He told the President we needed a strong voter rights act. President told Dr. King in so many words we don’t have the votes in Congress to get the voter rights act passed, I just signed the Civil Rights Act.
Dr. King came back to Atlanta, met with a group of us, and said ‘we will write that act’ and he made a decision to join us in Selma, Alabama. In Selma, Alabama in 1965 only 2.1% of blacks of voting age were registered to vote. The only time you could attempt to register to vote was on the first and third Monday’s of each month. You had to go down to the courthouse, stand in line, go up some steps, go through a set of double doors, and attempt to get a copy of the so-called literacy test. In Selma, Alabama in Dallas County there was a sheriff by the name of Jim Clark. He was a very big man who wore a gun on one side, a nightstick on the other side. He carried an electric cattle prodder in his hand, and he didn’t use it on cows. He wore a button on his left lapel that said ‘never.’
On January 18th, 1965, my day to lead a group of people to the courthouse to attempt to pass the so-called literacy test, Sheriff Clark met us at the top of the steps. He looked at me and he said ‘John Lewis you’re an outside agitator, you’re the lowest form of humanity.’ At that time I had all of my hair, a few pounds lighter. I looked at the sheriff and said ‘sheriff I may be an agitator but I’m not an outsider. I grew up only ninety miles from here and we are going to stay here until these people are allowed to register to vote.’ He said ‘you’re under arrest.’ He took about sixty of us to jail.
A few days later Dr. King and others came to Selma – more than 300 people arrested, high school students, college students, teachers, lawyers, doctors, ministers and others.
We filled the city jail. And then about two weeks later in a little town called Marion, Alabama, about thirty miles from Selma, the hometown of Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., the home county of Mrs. Ralph Abernathy, the home county of Mrs. Andrew Young, there was a march for the right to vote. A confrontation occurred and a young man by the name of Jimmy Lee Jackson tried to protect his elderly mother. He was shot in the stomach by a State Trooper and a few days later he died in the Good Samaritan’s Hospital in Selma.
Because of what happened to him we made a decision to march from Selma to Montgomery. So March 7th, 1965 six hundred of us on a Sunday afternoon participated in a non-violent workshop where we lined up in twos to walk in an orderly, peaceful, non-violent fashion from Selma to Montgomery.
We got to the top of Independence Bridge, down below we saw a sea of blue – Alabama State Troopers and we continued to walk. We came within the hearing distance of the State Troopers, a man identified himself and said ‘I am Major John Clark of the Alabama State Troopers. This is an unlawful march and will not be allowed to continue. I give you three minutes to disburse and return to your church.’ In less than a minute the major said ‘troopers advance.’ You saw these men putting on their gas masks. They came toward us beating us with nightsticks, bullwhips, tripping us with horses and releasing the tear gas. I was hit in the head by a State Trooper with a nightstick, had a concussion at the bridge, thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die.
Forty two years later I don’t recall walking back across that bridge, but I do recall being back at the church that Sunday afternoon. The church is full to capacity, more than two thousand people on the outside trying to get in to protest what had happened. Someone asked me to say a few words to the audiences and I stood up and said that ‘I don’t understand it, how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam, but he cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote.’ The next thing I knew I’d been admitted to the Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma.
The next morning Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came by to visit me. He said ‘don’t worry John, we’ll make it from Selma to Montgomery. The Voting Rights Act will be passed.’ Eight days later President Lyndon Johnson spoke to a joint session of the Congress and made one of the most meaningful speeches that any American President had made in modern times on the whole question of civil rights, the voting right. He started the speech off that night by saying, ‘I speak tonight for the dignity of man and for the destiny of democracy.’ He went on to say at times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. ‘So it was more than a century ago at Lexington and Concord. So it was at Appomattox, so it was last week in Selma Alabama.’
He called out part of the United States military and two weeks later we walked all the way, the fifty miles from Selma to Montgomery. In that speech President Johnson said we shall overcome. The Congress debated, the Voting Rights Act passed and President Johnson signed it into law on August 6th, 1965.
I say to you – a new generation of leaders – a new group of young people that have their path yet in their way. It is your time to speak up, to speak out. I say to you our country is a different country, our country is a better country because a whole generation got in the way.
The signs that I saw are gone and they will not return.
I want to close by telling a little story from my childhood. When I was growing up outside of Troy, Alabama, fifty miles from Montgomery, I had an aunt and her name was Seneva and my aunt Seneva lived in what we called a shotgun house. I know here on this lake, here in Geneva you’ve never seen a shotgun house. In Rochester, in New York City, in Syracuse, in Buffalo, you don’t know what I’m talking about. My aunt Seneva lived in a shotgun house. She didn’t have a green manicured lawn but a simple plain dirt yard. And sometimes at night you could look up through the holes in the ceiling through the tin roof and count the stars. And if it rained she would get a pail, a bucket or tub and catch the rainwater. From time to time she’d walk out into the woods and take branches from a dogwood tree and tie these branches together and make a broom and she called that broom the ‘brush broom’ and she would sweep the dirt yard very clean, sometimes two and three times a week, especially on a Friday or Saturday ‘cause she wanted that dirt yard to look very good for the weekend.
For those of you who might not know what a shotgun house is, in a non-violent sense, an old house, one way in, one way out, maybe a tin roof where you could bounce a basketball through the front door and it would go straight out the back door. My aunt Seneva lived in a shotgun house. One Saturday afternoon a group of my brothers and sisters and a few of my first cousins, about twelve or fifteen of us young children, were playing in my aunt Seneva’s dirt yard. An unbelievable storm came up the wind started blowing, the thunder started, the lightening started flashing, and the rain started beating on the tin roof of this old shotgun house.
My aunt became terrified. She started crying. She thought this old house was going to blow away. She got all of us little children together and we all started crying. We were terrified. We thought the house was going to blow away and when one corner of this old house appeared to be lifting from its foundation my aunt had us walk to that corner to try and hold the house down with our little bodies. When another corner appeared to be lifting, my aunt had us walk to that side to try to hold the house down with out little bodies.
We were little children walking with the wind but we never ever left the house. Call it the house of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, call it the house of Geneva, call it the house of New York, call it a house of Georgia, call it a house of California, we all live in the same house.
As new students you must do your part to help hold the house together, not just the American house, but the world house. This little piece of real estate, this little planet we call earth. Call it the house of Africa, the house of Europe, the house of Egypt, the house of Central and South America. We all live in the same house. And I said that those of us who live in America, maybe our foremothers and our forefathers all came to this great land in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.
So, walk with the wind and let the spirit of Hobart and William Smith Colleges be your guide.
Thank you very much. I wish you well.