When John Lewis helped lead over 600 civil rights marchers from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery, Ala. in 1965, he was prepared to be arrested. He carried a backpack filled with fruit, a toothbrush and toothpaste and two books in preparation. What he did not expect was to be attacked by state troopers armed with nightsticks and bullwhips while trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
During the confrontation, which later came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” Lewis sustained a second degree concussion. The event called national attention to the issue; later that year, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lewis, who was recognized as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement — along with A. Phillip Randolph, Whitney Young, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — spoke on Monday about his experiences in the movement. His talk, given at the Yale Law School, drew an audience of about 150.
“There was a tremendous amount of fear in the late ’50s and ’60s. That fear is gone now,” Lewis said.
In 1961, Lewis was one of the original 13 participants — seven blacks and six whites — in the Freedom Rides. The Riders boarded a Greyhound bus in Washington, D.C., on May 4 and embarked on a tour of the southern states in an effort to end the de facto segregation of public transportation in the South.
During their tour, the Riders were beaten and arrested, their buses stoned and firebombed. The trip ended with Lewis and many of the other volunteers in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, but the movement was ultimately successful. In September of that year, the Interstate Commerce Commission outlawed segregation in interstate bus travel.
Lewis became involved in the civil rights movement after meeting King in 1957. Lewis wrote King after he received no reply to an application to Troy State College. In response, King sent Lewis a round-trip bus ticket to Montgomery where King was working.
By 1963, Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC.
Telling a story about his aunt, who during a powerful storm, literally held down the corners of her tiny tin-roofed house, Lewis called on the audience to do everything they could to defend the people’s rights.
“You must never leave the house,” Lewis said. “You must use the law to hold down this little piece of real estate we call Earth together. You must do what you can to build a society that is free of racism, free of violence, free of hate.”
The conclusion of Lewis’s speech was greeted by thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
Laquesha Sanders LAW ’05 praised Lewis as “a speaker who can connect the past to the present.” He applied the idea of nonviolence to “the rule of law and our ideas as citizens of the U.S. and of the global community,” she said.
Alex Acree LAW ’07 said in particular he was impressed by the rhetorical skill employed by Lewis, who once attended seminary school, and whose style is reminiscent of that of a Baptist preacher.
“The abrupt transitions from disarming, funny stories to our nation’s most important stories really struck me,” Acree said. “I thought it was the best thing I’ve seen here yet.”
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