Civil rights champion John Lewis to deliver Commencement address May 20

Last surviving member of ‘Big Six’ also to receive honorary degree

John R. Lewis
John R. Lewis

U.S. Congressman John R. Lewis, considered one of the most courageous and influential leaders in the civil rights movement, will give the 2016 Commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis, according to Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.

Wrighton made the announcement to the Class of 2016 during the annual senior class toast  March 30 in the Danforth University Center.

The university’s 155th Commencement ceremony will begin at 8:30 a.m. Friday, May 20, in Brookings Quadrangle on the Danforth Campus.

During the ceremony, Lewis, who has served as U.S. representative of Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for 30 years, will also receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

He will address approximately 2,800 members of the Class of 2016 and their friends and family members.

“It is an honor and privilege to have Congressman Lewis speak to the Class of 2016,” said Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “As a pioneer in America’s struggle for civil rights, he has much to teach us about how far our country has come and how much work there is still left to do. He is a voice from our history but, more importantly, he is a hero who continues to issue a clarion call for the equal rights of all Americans.

“I could not be more delighted to have him here to address our graduates, their families and friends, and all of the members of the Washington University community who will gather for our 155th Commencement,” Wrighton said.

This will be Lewis’ second time at the university. He was last on campus in November 2015 when he attended a St. Louis International Film Festival screening of “Get in the Way: The Journey of John Lewis,” a one-hour documentary focused on his life.

About John Lewis

Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties and building “The Beloved Community” of justice and equality that his mentor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned.

Lewis’ dedication to the highest ethical standards and moral principles has won him the admiration of colleagues on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis grew up on his family’s farm in Pike County, Ala. He attended segregated public schools, where he experienced racism as a young boy.

As a teen, he was inspired by radio broadcasts of King’s sermons and news of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott.

It wasn’t long before he joined the civil rights movement, and for nearly 55 years, Lewis has remained at the vanguard of human rights struggles in the United States.

As a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters and participated in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at bus terminals across the South.

Lewis risked his life on those rides many times by simply sitting in seats reserved for white patrons. He was also beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation.

In 1963, at age 23, Lewis became a nationally recognized leader in the civil rights movement when he took over as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organizing and participating in sit-ins, Freedom Rides and voter registration drives.

He became known as one of the “Big Six” leaders who organized the historic 1963 March on Washington. Lewis was the youngest keynote speaker at the march, which is credited with helping pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he is the only surviving member of the “Big Six.”

Lewis also helped spearhead one of the most seminal moments of the civil rights movement when he and more than 600 peaceful protestors, marching from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., attempted to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.

Lewis and his fellow marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” News broadcasts and photographs revealing the senseless cruelty of the segregated South helped hasten passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. After leaving the SNCC in 1966, he continued his commitment to the civil rights movement.

He served as director of the Voter Education Project, which helped transform the nation’s political climate by adding nearly 4 million minorities to the voter rolls.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Lewis to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency.

In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council, where he served as an advocate for ethics in government and neighborhood preservation. He was first elected to Congress in November 1986.

The senior chief deputy whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House, Lewis is also a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and serves as the ranking member of its Subcommittee on Oversight and a member of its Subcommittee on Human Resources.

Lewis earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University and is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary.

He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, granted by President Barack Obama in 2010. He also has been awarded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolence Peace Prize and the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage” Lifetime Achievement Award.

He most recently was co-recipient of the inaugural Congressional Patriot Award, presented by the Bipartisan Policy Center during a March 15 ceremony at the Library of Congress.

The recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees, he is the author of the award-winning “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement” and “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change.” He has also written the first two volumes of “MARCH,” graphic novels in a trilogy that chronicle his perspective of the civil rights movement.

Books about his life include “Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement” and “John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Lewis lives in Atlanta. He and his late wife, Lillian Miles Lewis, have one son, John Miles Lewis.

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