Congressman John Lewis is a civil rights activist whose actions helped end legalized racial segregation. He has served Georgia as a US representative since 1987.
Young John Lewis,
You are so full of passion. In your lifetime, you will be arrested forty-five times in your mission to help redeem the soul of America.
In 1956, when you were only sixteen years old, you and some of your brothers and sisters and first cousins went down to the public library trying to get library cards, trying to check out some books, and you were told by the librarian that the library is for whites only, and not for coloreds.
I say to you now, when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to continue to speak up, to speak out.
You became so inspired by Dr. King and Rosa Parks that you got involved in the civil rights movement. Something touched you and suggested that you write a letter to Dr. King. You didn’t tell your teachers; you didn’t tell your mother and your father. Dr. King wrote you back and invited you to come to Montgomery.
In the meantime, you have been admitted to a little school in Nashville, Tennessee. And it was there that you got involved in the sit-ins.
You’d be sitting there in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion and someone would come up and spit on you, or put a lighted cigarette down your back, pour hot water, hot coffee, hot chocolate on you.
You got arrested the first time, and you felt so free. You felt liberated. You felt like you had crossed over.
You probably would never believe it, but the “Boy from Troy,” as Dr. King used to call you, will become the embodiment of nonviolence in America.
Two years after you speak at the March on Washington, you will see the face of death while leading the march for voting across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
You were beaten on that bridge. You were left bloody. You thought you were going to die. But you will make it. You will live to see your mother and father cast their first votes. You will also live to see this segregated nation we live in send an African American president and his family to the White House.
And guess what? Guess what, young John? By some divine providence, as if to send a message down through the ages, that man will be nominated on the forty-fifth anniversary of the March on Washington.
And all those signs that you saw as a little child that said WHITE MEN, COLORED MEN, WHITE WOMEN, COLORED WOMEN—those signs are gone. And the only places you will see those signs today will be in a book, in a museum, or a video.
John, thank you. For going to the library with your brothers, your sisters, and cousins. You were denied a library card; you were sad. But one day you will be elected to the Congress. You will write a book called Walking with the Wind and the same library will invite you to come back for a book signing, where black and white citizens will show up. And after the book signing, they will give you a library card.
I believe as Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph and others taught you, that we’re one people and it doesn’t matter whether we’re black, or white, Latino, Asian American, or Native American. That maybe our foremothers and our forefathers all came here in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.
John, you understood the words of Dr. King when he said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”