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John Lewis speaks on the Knox College campus in January 1999

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Remembering Congressman John Lewis

Lewis received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Knox in 1999 in recognition of his public service

John Lewis speaks on the Knox College campus in January 1999

Knox College mourns the passing of longtime U.S. Representative and civil rights leader John Lewis on Friday, July 17. 

Representative Lewis held a special place in the Knox community after receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree from the College in 1999. That year, he also delivered the convocation address at the College's Founders Day celebration, which marked not only the 162nd anniversary of the founding of the College but the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Allied Blacks for Liberty and Equality (A.B.L.E.), which was founded in the wake of the assassination of Representative Lewis's colleague Martin Luther King in 1968.

To make a gift to Knox in his memory and support opportunities for students from all backgrounds, please give online or contact the Office of Advancement at 309-341-7233 or toll-free at 888-566-9265 for other options.

As we remember Lewis's profound contributions to the civil rights movement and his lifetime commitment to social and racial justice, it's worth taking a fresh look at his 1999 speech—a message that remains as relevant as ever today.

Both as teachers and students here, you have a great legacy and tradition to uphold. We stand at the doorstep of a new century. Horace Mann, the father of modern education in America, said on one occasion: “We should be ashamed to die, ashamed to leave this world, until we have made some contribution to humanity.” As students engaged in the study of science, of politics, of the arts, you have embarked on a mission to bring about change in our society through creative thinking and action. Here at Knox College, you are taught by very fine teachers, and you labor daily in pursuit of knowledge. But, like the Founders of Knox College, you must forget about your own circumstances and get involved in the problems and circumstances of others.

Today, on your Founders Day, we are reminded of the vision of leaders of the past: Abraham Lincoln, Reverend George Washington Gale, Hiram Huntington Kellogg, Barnabas Root, and Hiram Revels. You, as students and teachers here, must fashion a vision of a better world. I know you have formed that vision in your studies. I believe, and I say this with all my heart, that those who lead make a difference. We can, through our work for social change, make our society a better place. And now, through your leadership, through your training, through your scholarship, you must help build an all-inclusive world community based on simple justice, an all-encompassing community which respects the dignity of every individual—what I like to call the Beloved Community.

Consider those two words: “Beloved” means not hateful, not violent, not uncaring, not unkind. And “Community” means not separated, not polarized, not locked in struggle. This dream for a Beloved Community will require the creation of a community truly at peace with itself. There are challenges in the world beyond this lovely campus. In your lifetime, you will, no doubt, face the challenge of solving the great gaps in income, wealth, and health. On average, women in our society earn only 71 cents to a man’s dollar. African American wealth is one-tenth the wealth of white Americans. And the poor are less likely to receive quality health care because they lack health insurance. We could close the gaps by reordering our priorities. The most pressing challenge in our society today is defined by what we do to enhance the dignity of all humankind here at home and around the world.

Too often we are stuck in the trappings of a comfortable life. If you want a better society, complaining will get you and us nowhere. You cannot wait for someone else to do it. You cannot wait for the government to do it. Through your own efforts, through action, through creativity and a vision, you must make our society a better place.

As a child of the South, my early years were spent in rural Alabama. In my early childhood, I saw and experienced the dehumanizing role of Blacks in the southern system of race and class. Here was oppression at its worst in 20th century America, but I was fortunate to see, also in the South—the birth of the civil rights movement.

Under the leadership of a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Montgomery bus boycott was effective in ending segregation, and Dr.  Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as a spokesperson for racial equality and justice.

Young Blacks and whites put their bodies and their lives on the front lines in the sit-ins. With the use of this creative tactic of nonviolent direct action, places of public accommodations were desegregated in cities and towns across the South.

In 1961 came the Freedom Rides, another milestone in the history of nonviolent social action in America. The Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation in interstate travel from Washington into the deep South, captured the imagination of the nation and effectively opened the doors to public travel facilities for all races.

We had won the right to eat in restaurants and at lunch counters which had previously denied us service. We suffered beatings, arrests, and abuses on the Freedom Rides and won our rights in interstate travel. But although we had won these victories—and they were important victories—we realized that we would not be able to accomplish meaningful change until we could participate in the democratic process.

Thus, several of the major civil rights organizations began to turn their attention to the political arena by registering and encouraging Blacks in the South to vote.

At that time, there were many areas of the South where Blacks constituted from 50 to 80 percent of the total population, but there was not even one registered Black voter. Tactics used by whites to keep Blacks out of the political process ranged from economic retaliation to outright murder. Literacy tests, administered only to Black voting applicants, were so complicated that even college-trained persons could not hope to make a passing score. Those few who were allowed to register were harassed, intimidated, and even beaten when they tried to exercise the right to vote.

Throughout the South, local, regional, and national civil rights organizations worked to expose the injustices of the denial of voting rights for Blacks. The years of anguish and struggle for the right to vote came to a head on Sunday, March 7, 1965, when a small but courageous band of demonstrators attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to draw the attention of the nation once again to the injustices of the South. The marchers, including young children and old women, were viciously set upon by policemen and brutally beaten—a bloody event which dramatized the necessity for a strong voting rights law.

As a result of the Selma march, and the strong support of President Johnson, the Voting Rights Act was passed and signed into law on August 6, 1965.

Literally millions of southern Blacks have entered the political system in the South since 1965.

I relate this history to you today because it has been a long road, littered by the battered and broken bodies of the nameless martyrs who paid the ultimate price for a precious right.

It has been a long journey of untold sacrifices on the part of people who kept knocking on doors and endured months and years of organizing, driven only by a dream.

It was a dream which not only sustained those of us who were caught up in the struggle to make the dream a reality, but which captured the imagination and the respect of men and women of goodwill.

For those of us in the movement, we learned early that our struggle is not for a month, a season, or a year, but for a lifetime if that is what it takes to build the “Beloved Community.”

This community—this Beloved Community—cannot take hold and grow without working together in our daily life. The greatest lesson from my life in the civil rights movement came from working with others. At times, we fought. At other times, we cried. And at still other times, we cared deeply for each other. Ours was a circle of trust, a coalition of conscience, a band of brothers and sisters. Above all else, we were unified in our purpose: To be a living witness against the evil system of segregation.

A people united, driven by moral purpose, guided by a goal of a just and decent community, are absolutely unstoppable. It is like wild ivy against a barren concrete wall. We turned our nation around by pointing it toward justice and equality. We destroyed the barren and corrupt legal order of systematic segregation. There is no reason we cannot continue to build a Beloved Community today and on into the dawn of the coming century.

People often ask me, how do we build a Beloved Community?

First, we must know our history as a nation and as a people. We must study history for its great achievements and its terrible defeats and setbacks. Second, we must share our history, for after all we are a culturally diverse nation woven together with many religions, races, and creeds. Third, we must shed a tear over our wrongs and work to set ourselves on a righteous path. We must, in other words, live history, act it out, and understand it. Because for better or worse, our past is what brought us here, and it will help lead us to where we need to go. Just maybe, just maybe our forefathers and foremothers came to this land in different ships—but we are all in the same boat now.

I never thought I would be serving in the United States Congress as a boy growing up in rural Alabama. I am more than lucky, I am blessed for the opportunity to serve in Congress. But life is not about who wins. It’s not even about who is right. It’s about what is right. What is right never, ever changes. What is right rises above personalities, above politics, above nations, and above our present set of circumstances. What is right is not about today, or yesterday, or your graduation day in 1999, or 1888. It is timeless and it is eternal.

What is right?

If we keep our hearts and our minds constantly focused on this one single question…What is right?...and if we act on the answer to this eternal question with courage and commitment, we will overcome all that stands between us and the glory of a truly Beloved Community.

President Roosevelt once said, “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubt of today. Let us move forward with a strong and active faith.”

You can move us forward with a strong and active faith that embraces the principles of social and economic justice.

You have a mandate from the Spirit of History to follow in the footsteps of those brave and courageous men and women who fought to make a difference wherever they stood on this tiny planet we call spaceship Earth.

You have a mandate from the masses who have worked together, prayed together, stood up together, sat-in together, sang together, were beaten together, and went to jail together.

You have a mandate from the three young men, two Jewish and one Black—Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner—who gave their lives in Mississippi in 1964. Not in Europe. Not in Asia. Not in Central America. But here, in this nation, in the American South.

You bear the responsibility to become the conscience of your community and make your community a better place for everyone. We cannot afford to leave no one behind or any man, woman, or child left out. We must be a living witness against those who would turn back the hands of time.

But your task is not an easy one. It may not even be accomplished in your lifetime, but you must be prepared to struggle to improve the human condition.

We all must commit ourselves anew to the struggle for human liberation. It is the most fundamental quest in the history of humankind. To be secure from harm, to imagine and create dreams, and to live a useful and joyful life. We must continue our efforts to tear down all barriers which would keep us from our full potential as human beings.

Now I realize that political power alone cannot bring instant solutions to the problems of humankind. The solution resides in each of us. Your education is expanding your mind. Now you must use your mind to light a path toward a new world order based on an old idea: compassion and concern for those who have been left out and left behind. We must leave no one behind unless we want to give up on the dream of a Beloved Community.

As a college student, I was swept by history into the civil rights movement. One day I sat down at a lunch counter in Nashville, Tennessee, only to find myself arrested for breaking a custom that was not right. From that day—February 27, 1960—I became part of a movement fueled by a vision so bright that no form of evil could kill it. We challenged the system of segregation which had dominated the lives of Black people since the days of slavery. I found myself in a community of people who were willing to disobey social customs and to defy unjust laws. These people—these fighters for equality—were willing to suffer beatings, go to jail, and even give their lives for a higher purpose.

We have a moral obligation to find solutions to our man-made problems.

We have a moral obligation to look out for all the members of the human family. As Dr. King often reminded us, “The destiny of all people is intertwined and none shall be free until all are free.”

We who inhabit this tiny planet we call Earth must learn to live together, or we will perish as fools. We must obey the dictates of our conscience and the compass of our heart. We must be prepared for the long struggle.

At times, the fruits of your efforts will be bitter, but the journey through life is always better when fueled by a vision, a dream, determination to make life better for someone else besides yourself. Frederick Douglass said it best in 1857, the same year that Old Main was completed:

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its mighty waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both a moral and physical one, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand—it never has and it never will.”

Let us gather together our most precious resources, our greatest strengths, our greatest gifts, and let us use them—not to divide, but to bring together—not to tear down, but to uplift—not to oppress, but to set free.

We come in different ships, but we are in the same boat.

Thank you, keep the faith, and keep your eyes on the prize.

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Printed on Sunday, October 25, 2020