Before venturing out into the real world and experiencing their own successes and struggles, the new graduates of Berea College received a piece of wisdom from someone who knows about dealing with and overcoming adversity: U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
“We humans have a need for heroes,” said Chad Berry, academic vice president and dean of the faculty at Berea College, during commencement ceremonies Sunday. “Today, we have a real life hero next to me on this stage.”
Lewis is one of the “Big Six” who were prominent leaders during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s. His accomplishments include assisting with the organization of March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the participation in the Freedom Rides. Other members of the Big Six included Martin Luther King Jr. and James Farmer. Since 1987, Lewis has been Georgia’s fifth district congressman.
“This is your day. Enjoy it,” Lewis told the crowd of several hundred graduates, families and friends. “Take a long, deep breath and take it all in, but tomorrow you must be prepared to roll up your sleeves,” Lewis said.
Lewis said he did not grow up in a “big city” like Berea, but outside of a small Alabama city called Troy. Lewis told stories of his childhood, such as trying to get a library card from the public library after learning about the actions of Rosa Parks and King in the 1950s.
“We were told by the librarian, that the library is for whites only and not for coloreds,” he said. “I never went back to that library until July 5, 1998, for a book signing.” His first book, “Walking With the Wind,” was a memoir.
Lewis recalled signs during racial segregation in America such as “white waiting,” “colored waiting,” “white only,” and “colored only” that were prominent in public places.
“The only places you will see those signs today ... will be in a book. In a museum. On a video,” he said.
Lewis encouraged the graduates to “get in the way” whenever they encounter something they feel is unjust.
“Use your education, to speak up, to speak out,” he said. “And when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate to do something about it.”
Lewis ended his speech by telling the graduates to do good and hold down their “houses,” whether it be the “house” of Berea, New York, Georgia or India.
“We’re one people. We’re one family,” he said.
Anna Mason, a Winchester resident, said she came to the commencement specifically just to see John Lewis.
“It’s the highlight of my week,” she said.
Mason, 63, said she remembers racial segregation in the region, specifically at the Winchester-based Leeds Theater. Mason said blacks sat in the upper balcony of the theater while whites sat on the ground floor. Lewis also spoke about a similar personal experience.
“I can remember when they actually integrated the theater,” she said. “When we went downstairs, it was like a whole new world.”