FRANKFORT — Civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., exhorted students Wednesday at Kentucky State University to fight against injustice where they see it, what he called "getting into good trouble."
"Get in the way. Get into trouble. Make some noise. And use your vote to help change America and change the world," Lewis told hundreds gathered in the auditorium at Bradford Hall.
Lewis, who turns 74 Friday, was a major figure in the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, including the Freedom Rides of 1961, in which he was beaten and imprisoned; the March on Washington in 1963, where he spoke; and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. At the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, he suffered a fractured skull at the hands of a state trooper swinging a club.
"People should remember that people were willing and prepared to put their bodies on the line" during those struggles, Lewis said.
The Selma march is credited with pushing forward the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits discrimination in voting. Lewis said he was disappointed last year when the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the requirement that states and counties with a history of voter discrimination clear any changes in voting procedures with the federal Department of Justice.
"I was sad. I was so sad," Lewis said. "I felt like crying. But I said to myself, 'Don't cry. Dr. (Martin Luther) King wouldn't want you to cry. The vote is the most powerful tool we have in a democratic society."
He said he was a co-sponsor of the Voting Rights Amendment Act, which seeks to reinstate portions of the law that were struck down.
"We're going to fix it," he said.
In response to a question from student Ralph Williams, Lewis found parallels between the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the issue of gay marriage today.
"You cannot have equality for some and not equality for all," Lewis said. "During the late '50s and early '60s, people would ask Martin Luther King Jr. and some of us about interracial marriage. And Dr. King would say, 'Racism doesn't fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.
"So if two guys fall in love and want to get married, or two women fall in love and want to get married, it's their business. And no government, state or federal, should tell people who to love and not love."
Earlier in his address, Lewis spoke of raising chickens for eggs while growing up in Troy, Ala. From an early age, he wanted to be a preacher, so he would sometimes "have church" with the chickens and preach to them as they sat in the henhouse.
"I'm convinced that the great majority of those chickens that I preached to in the '40s and the '50s tended to listen to me better than some of my colleagues do to me today," Lewis said. "As a matter of fact, some of those chickens were a little more productive."
Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.