–U.S. Congressman John Lewis speaks at Tufts for the 4th Annual Alan D. Solomont Lecture on citizenship and Public Service in Cohen Auditorium on April 5, 2016. Jiaxun Li / The Tufts Daily

Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis speaks at Tufts

Congressman John Lewis of Georgia’s 5th congressional district spoke to a sold-out audience in Cohen Auditorium last night as this year’s Alan D. Solomont Lecturer on Citizenship and Public Service. 

The Distinguished Speaker Series, presented by the Tisch College of Citizenship and Active Service, most recently invited journalist and former Meet the Press host David Gregory to speak last month. 

Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service Alan D. Solomont introduced Lewis with praise for his life story and activism, expressing a belief that Lewis is one who should be called a hero. 

Often dubbed one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis participated in many notable protests in the 1960s including the March on Washington, the march across the Edmund Pettis bridge and the Freedom Rides, according to his website. In 2011, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, the highest award a civilian can receive from the United States government. He is the last living member of the “Big Six” Civil Rights leaders.

During his talk, Lewis spoke about a wide range of topics: his childhood, his relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his time spent in jails over the years as a protestor, what he thought of the movie “Selma,” his time in Congress and a new wave of civil rights activism under the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Lewis described the famous 1965 confrontation of marchers and State Troopers on Edmund Pettus Bridge, also known as Bloody Sunday, as “totally unexpected.”

“All of these state troopers put on their gas masks. They came toward us, beating us with nightsticks and trampling us with horses. I was the first one to be hit — I thought I saw death, I thought I was going to die on that bridge.”

Interestingly, Lewis said he was treated by a physician from Tufts Medical School.

“His name was Dr. Jack Geiger. It was Dr. Geiger who encouraged me to come to Boston and seek further treatment after the march was over,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for those nurses and doctors, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

According to Solomont, Geiger will be receiving an honorary degree at commencement this spring.

Lewis also spoke about his encounters with ignorance as a member of Congress.

“We had a member from Georgia who went to the floor and said something like ‘we don’t want to see another penny spent on the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.’ And I said to him, mister, you should know better. You should know the history of Georgia and the South in denying people the right to participate in the democratic process,” Lewis said. “He was so taken aback, he withdrew his amendment. So, sometimes you have to speak truth to power.”

Overall, despite his long history battling injustice, his message was primarily one of love and peace. Lewis said that he rarely gets angry but rather has episodes of “righteous indignation.”

“You cannot try to build a loving society and then go out and use tactics that are not loving. Just love everybody,” he said.

If Lewis wasn’t angry, then he was certainly frustrated when he spoke about the 2016 election and the state of politics in Washington.

“I think it’s very hard to understand the state of American politics right now,” he said. “What did we do wrong? Are we giving up on our democracy? I would appeal to all politicians and all citizens that we can be a little more human.”

Aside from civil rights, Lewis answered questions from the audience about the importance of activism in social justice movements for issues such as immigrant rights and LGBT anti-discrimination.

“I’ve been arrested forty times before becoming a Congressman, and since then I’ve arrested five times,” he said. “My most recent arrest was about immigration reform…as part of a group of 200 citizens protesting. Nobody in this country should have to live in the shadows.”

The Daily was able to sit down for a brief interview with Lewis before his talk. When asked about the #BlackLivesMatter movement and increasing racial discrimination by law enforcement, Lewis said that he understands activists’ concerns about the criminal justice system, and he would encourage them to “learn the ways [of] peace and love.”

“We saw a rash of shootings by police officers in many parts of America and people raised the question, what’s going on?” he said. “I’ve said in the past that we must respect the dignity and the worth of every human being. When I see police officers, I say thank you for your service…because these young men and women put their lives on the line every single day.”

Lewis suggested that activists try to sit down with police officers in their communities and have a conversation.

“I think it would be good for police officers and community activists just to come together in a setting where they get to know each other better, where they respect each other,” he said.

Lewis has previously praised the #BlackLivesMatter movement for causing “good trouble,” according to a Sept. 15, 2015 article from CBS News.

Lewis said he was “somewhat reluctant to comment on the particulars at Tufts University” when asked about Tufts’ own #BlackLivesMatter movement and the demands made by student activists in #thethreepercent group last November, but he did say that universities in general are a part of teaching young people to “learn to live together.”

“Educational institutions, whether they be public or private, just like the larger society, we all must do what we can to make our institution look like America,” Lewis said. “I think there’s always room for all of us to do better, to make America better, to make our society, our communities, our colleges and universities better.”

At the end of the discussion, Solomont presented Lewis with gifts on behalf of the university, including a Jumbo-themed tie, before the audience gave the civil rights legend a standing ovation as he departed. 

The Distinguished Speakers Series next welcomes political strategists David Axelrod and Beth Myers to discuss their experiences as part of the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney respectively.

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