On the day Nelson Mandela’s body was lowered into the ground, Congressman John Lewis raised his voice half a world away to exhort the December graduates of Cleveland State University to begin lives of activism and “to get into good trouble.”
Lewis, 73, told the almost 1,000 graduates that he had been “very moved” in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of the U.S. delegation to the Mandela memorial service.
“Don’t give up; don’t give in; go forth and be good citizens, not just of America, but citizens of the world,” Lewis said, connecting his listeners to Mandela’s legacy and the American Civil Rights movement. “This is your day, not mine,” he said, with more than the snowy date on the calendar in mind.
A man of stillness and humility, Lewis moved his right hand over his heart as he accepted an honorary doctorate from Cleveland State, the latest of more than 50 such academic honors. “I’m delighted and very pleased to be with you on this important occasion,” he told his hosts. “Thank you for honoring a poor boy from rural Alabama. I was not born in a big city like Cleveland.”
But he became a man of momentous deeds – an architect of the 1963 March on Washington, a veteran of more than 50 arrests and a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Two years after the March on Washington, Lewis and SNCC co-founder Hosea Williams started across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., leading some 600 people marching for voting rights. They were beaten and gassed, and when the vigilantes and the Alabama state police were done, they had broken Lewis’ young skull.
“I was beaten unconscious and bloody in 1965 on that bridge in Selma,” Lewis told his Cleveland State audience, “but I never, ever thought about hating anyone. Hate was too big of a burden to bear.”
Cleveland State University President Ronald M. Berkman reminded the assembly that Lewis was aptly called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress.” He asked everyone to observe a moment of silence in Mandela’s memory and urged the graduates to savor the day they have earned.
Lewis entertained his listeners with boyhood stories of raising chickens, marking eggs, eating peanuts and first hearing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio in 1955. He described applying to Troy State University and receiving no reply. “My generation, we didn’t have an internet, we didn’t have a cell phone, but we used what we had to bring about a nonviolent revolution.”
He urged the graduates to find their cause. “You won’t be arrested maybe. You won’t be beaten. But do your part. The way of peace, the way of love, is the better way.”