Sharing words of love and justice, U.S. Rep. John Lewis had a message for a packed house at the Harvard Kennedy School on Tuesday: persevere.
The 77-year-old Georgia congressman and Civil Rights icon was at the Institute of Politics to receive the 2017 Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award, presented by the Center for Public Leadership at the School.
Following the presentation of the Maya Lin-designed award by David Gergen, professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership, Lewis addressed the lessons of his own formidable past as well as the challenges ahead.
In a conversation co-moderated by Nancy F. Koehn, James B. Robison chair of business administration at Harvard Business School, and ImeIme Umana, the first African-American woman editor of the Harvard Law Review and the Sheila C. Johnson fellow at the Center for Public Leadership, Lewis was asked what role young people in public life — such as the many students at the event — can play.
“Young people can be inspired to get up. To stand up, and get in the way,’” said Lewis, who was brutally injured on the Edmund Pettis Bridge while attempting to march with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965 at age 25. He’d joined the Freedom Riders six years earlier.
“You’ve been well educated. You have skills. You’re smart,” he told the audience. “Get out there and help people. Change our society. Help redeem not just the soul of America, but the soul of the world.
“… Do your best to look out for all humankind. Never become bitter; never ever give up. You’ll get knocked down but get up. I was knocked down on the bridge, left bloody and unconscious, but I didn’t give up. I kept the faith, and that’s what we all have to do.”
Lewis said he is heartened by the political rallies since the election. “People [are] saying we’re not going to take it anymore, we’re not going back, we’re going forward, we’ve come too far,” he said. “We’ve made too much progress to go back.”
Forward motion may be multifaceted, and it may be personal. Lewis told the audience about an emotional moment with former Ku Klux Klan supporter Elwin Wilson in 2009. Wilson, who died in 2013, had requested a meeting with the congressman to apologize for his violent racist past, in particular for participating in the attack on Lewis in 1961.
“He said ‘I want to apologize. Will you accept my apology? Will you forgive me?’” Lewis recalled. “He started crying. I started crying. I hugged him, and I forgave him.”
This exchange, he said, freed them both. “It is in keeping with the philosophy of nonviolence, to be able to forgive, to be able to lay down that burden.”
Several times, Lewis returned to this theme. “The philosophy and discipline of nonviolence is one of those immutable principles that you cannot deviate from,” he said. “If you can create a beloved community, a community at peace with itself, you create a community of love.”
That path has not been easy. “When Dr. King was assassinated, I was very down,” Lewis recalled. “It was Bobby Kennedy who announced to the crowd that Dr. King had been assassinated, and I said to myself, ‘Well, we still have Bobby.’” Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was also assassinated. “That was a low point,” Lewis acknowledged. It was also, he said, an inspiration.
“One reason for me to get involved in electoral politics, to run for office, was the desire to pick up where Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy left off. President [John] Kennedy, Dr. King, and Bobby Kennedy became my heroes,” he said. “They inspired me. They lifted me. They gave me a sense of hope and optimism. I couldn’t stay down. I had to get up and keep moving.”
For those whom he himself has influenced, Lewis had some advice. “Be patient,” he said. “Try to be a pilot light and not a firecracker. A pilot light continues to burn; a firecracker just pops off and is gone.
“Sometimes, people are there for a day, a moment, and they’re gone. I say sometimes, I said it during the movement, I said it to my family members: You have to pace yourself for the long haul.”