Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., April 28, 29 or 30
“The President recently told me, ‘Thank you for finding a way to get in the way’,” Lewis said, laughing softly.
An early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a member of the inner circle of organizers for 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and for the passage of the Civil Right Act a year later, Lewis made “getting in the way” a hallmark of his involvement in the struggle, from sitting-in at segregated lunch counters in Nashville and integrating interstate buses traveling through the South to walking in voter-registration marches during the Mississippi Freedom Summer and surviving a vicious beating by police in Selma, Ala.
“Resistance and righteousness need not be arrogant or violent,” Lewis said. “It’s possible to come together and just be human.”
The 74-year-old Lewis is of small stature, but is a giant of history, and his booming voice and forceful delivery mesmerized the crowd.
In the event – presented as part of Bradley’s year-long “Standing Together” theme marking the 50th anniversary of important achievements in the Civil Rights Movement – others offered brief comments, too. Also speaking were U.S. Reps. Robin Kelly (D-Chicago, a Bradley trustee), Cheri Bustos (D-East Moline) and Aaron Schock (R-Peoria, a Bradley graduate).
Some mentioned the late Everett Dirksen – the Pekin Republican who was a U.S. Senator from 1951-1969 and Senate Minority Leader for 10 of those years. He played a key role in marshalling enough GOP votes to break a filibuster by Southern Democrats and to secure the Civil Rights Act’s passage.
“For Dirksen, national interest trumped partisan interest,” said Frank Mackaman, director of the Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin.
A similar devotion to the common good was a refrain throughout Lewis’s remarks, which called on people to work together and “never give up on anybody, and find a way to respect and to love every human being,” he said.
“We all live in the same house.”
Acknowledging downstate Illinois’ heritage, from history’s Abraham Lincoln to today’s lawmakers, Lewis paused and said, “There must be something in the water or in the air in this part of this great state.”
Whether in civil rights or voting rights, rights for gay Americans or rights for working people, progress can be a formidable challenge, which emcee and former Congressman and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood conceded.
LaHood expressed doubts that today’s Congress could pass a bipartisan Civil Rights bill now.
But what’s difficult isn’t necessarily impossible.
Notwithstanding Capitol Hill gridlock, Lewis said he has hopes and he knows that progress has been made. Republicans and Democrats still can come together to enact important legislation, he said. After all, they’ve done it before during other tense periods.
“During the past 50 years,” Lewis said, “we’ve witnessed nothing short of a non-violent revolution. We live in a different country, a better place, because people came together.”
Besides, he added, it’s our duty.
“It’s our moral obligation, our mission, to engage the order of thing – to make it right,” Lewis said. “Speak up and speak out and work with others to bring about change. Keep your eyes on the prize; keep the faith.
“We must strive for freedom, strive for liberty, strive for the human spirit,” he continued. “That’s as old as history and as fresh as the morning dew.
“We must never give up, never give in and never become hostile.”
[PICTURED: John Lewis (right) is one of a group of leaders of 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom visiting with Republican U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen from Pekin, Ill., that August 28. Pictured are, from left, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.(the Southern Christian Leadership Conference); Roy Wilkins (rear) NAACP; Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers; Dirksen and Lewis, then head of the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee. AP photo courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University archives.]