If you haven’t been at the U for at least five years, you may not know that we had the privilege to hear from U.S. Rep. John Lewis on campus in 2015. His graphic novel March was chosen as the signature MUSE book for that year, and civil rights activist Lewis was the distinguished national guest.
Each year, the MUSE Project (My U Signature Experience) chooses a theme for campuswide discussion and a centerpiece text. The 2015 theme was community. As we celebrate Lewis’ message of pushing for equitable change once again during MLK week 2021, let’s reflect on his life and remember the words he shared with our campus community.
Below is an excerpt from “Good Trouble” published in Continuum magazine, Summer 2016 by Susan Vogel about our students’ experiences reading Lewis’s book and hearing him speak (scroll down for video of his speech). For more information on MLK 2021 events also honoring Lewis, click here.
“We’re one family”
On Nov. 11, 2015, to a capacity crowd of more than 800 at the U, Lewis shared his story of growing up one of 10 children of sharecroppers in highly segregated rural Alabama. As a child, he saw “whites only” signs and asked why. When he had to sit in the balcony of movie theaters, he asked why. Lewis was told, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble.”
At age 15, he heard a radio show about Rosa Parks, who refused to sit in the “colored” section of a bus, and about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “The actions of Rosa Parks and the words of [Dr.] King inspired me to find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble,” he told the crowd. “And that’s what I did, I got in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Lewis’s first act of civil disobedience, at age 16, was to request a library card.
Inspired by Dr. King, Lewis began “studying the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. ” Lewis joined students and adults of all ages who bravely challenged the segregation laws of the South.
Sitting at “whites only” lunch counters in Nashville, they suffered attacks. People “spit on us. Put a lit cigarette out in our hair or down our backs,” he said. As soon as one group of students was knocked unconscious or thrown in jail, another group arrived to request to be served. Then came the Freedom Rides, in which blacks and whites rode together on segregated buses. In town after town, they suffered assaults, firebombs, and beatings.
Lewis was one of six people who organized the August 28, 1963, march on Washington. He spoke just prior to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was one of the actions that spurred the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The following year, Lewis led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to demand voting rights. The bloody attack on the marchers, broadcast nationwide, hastened the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1986, after more than 40 arrests, Lewis entered political life. “If you would have told me that someday I would be a U.S. Congressman and that an African American would be the president of the United States…,”
Lewis said to an impassioned round of applause near the end of his speech. Lewis urged students to become involved in the political process. “There are forces in America today that are trying to take us back to the time when it was impossible or difficult for students, young people, people of color, and seniors to participate in the democratic process,” he said. “In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter if we are black or white or Latino or Asian American. We’re one family. We live in the same house.”