On May 20, 1961, John Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders were brutally attacked by a mob of white segregationists. Precisely 55 years later, the civil rights pioneer and congressman stood before the Washington University in St. Louis Class of 2016 and urged them to continue the fight for a better world.
“We were beaten and left bloody,” U.S. Rep. Lewis said. “We didn’t give up. We didn’t give in. We didn’t lose faith. We kept our eyes on the prize. And as graduates, you must keep your eyes on the prize. You have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate to do your part. Help create a beloved America, a beloved world where no one is stepped on or left behind because of their race or their class.”
Lewis spoke before a crowd of more than 2,900 graduates and some 12,000 family members, friends, faculty, staff, administrators, university trustees and members of the Class of 1966 in Brookings Quadrangle.
“I wish each and every one of you could stand where I’m standing. Unbelievable. Unreal,” Lewis said in his greeting. “Graduates, you look beautiful; you look handsome. This is your day. Enjoy it. Take a long deep breath and take it all in. But tomorrow you must be prepared to roll up your sleeves, because the world is waiting for talented men and women to lead it to a better place.”
Lewis shared his own journey from rural Alabama to Congress. It started as a young boy on his father’s 110-acre farm. On visits across the state, he was struck by the signs for “colored men” and “colored waiting.”
“I’d ask my mother, asked my father, my grandparents and great grandparents, ‘Why?’ And they would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble,’” Lewis recalled.
But the actions of Rosa Parks and the words of Martin Luther King Jr. inspired Lewis to get in the way, to get in trouble, and he encouraged graduates to do the same.
“You must leave here and get in the way,” Lewis said. “When you see something that is not fair, not right, not just, you must have the courage to stand up, to speak up and find a way to get in the way.”
Lewis told the crowd he would steer clear of election-year politics in his speech. But he encouraged graduates to vote, calling it “the most powerful nonviolent tool” in a democratic society.
And he did get in one poke at Congress. He told the crowd how, as a boy, he would preach to a “congregation” of chickens in the chicken yard.
“Some of these chickens would bow their heads. Some of these chickens would shake their heads. They never quite said, ‘amen,’” Lewis recalled. “But when I look back on it, those chickens that I preached to in the ’40s and ’50s tended to listen to me much better than my colleagues listen to me today in the Congress. As a matter of fact, some of those chickens were a little bit more productive. At least they produced eggs.”
Lewis closed his remarks by asking graduates to use their education and energy to protect and expand the freedoms he and other civil rights leaders fought for a half-century ago.
“The way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence is a much better way,” Lewis said. “And it doesn’t matter whether we are black or white, Latino, Asian-American or Native American. It doesn’t matter whether we are straight or gay, bisexual, transgendered. We are one people, one family, one house. We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters.
“Go out and do what you must do. You have the power, you have the ability not just to change America but to change the world and create a world community at peace with itself. Help redeem the soul of America, the soul of the world. So I say to you walk with the wind and let the spirit of peace, justice and love be your guide.”
Read a full transcript of Lewis’ address to the graduates.
Read a transcript of Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton’s address to the graduates.
Read a transcript of Senior Class President Christine Lung’s address.
Read a transcript of graduate student speaker Ashley Macrander’s address.