Selma and Beyond; Honoring John Lewis

Fifty years since Selma, since the Edmund Pettus Bridge, thoughts of all that we all have been through are news. They’re also in our hearts and minds as we see the film SELMA, as we read the newspapers, perhaps as we catch a sound bite of President Obama speaking on that bridge.

So it was with great anticipation that we took our seats on Wednesday in Virginia Military Institute’s Cameron Hall to witness an award being given to Congressman John Lewis.

Congressman, and so much more. A man who in his own words has walked with the wind. Son of sharecroppers. Civil rights leader on that fateful Bloody Sunday on the bridge, and for all the years since. We expected eloquence. He gave us that and a whole lot more – humor, inspiration, and a challenge not to forget who we are and what this country’s promise has always been.

He said:

  • When he was a child, and he’d see the signs of segregation everywhere – “White” – “Colored” on the signage and in the faces and the body language of everyone around him – he’d ask his parents, “WHY?” They’d tell him, Don’t make waves. Don’t ask questions. Be a good boy and stay out of trouble.
  • But sometimes you have to make trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble. Martin Luther King, he said, made good trouble. Necessary trouble. So did young Jonathan Myrick Daniels, VMI graduate, seminary student, civil rights activist. Daniels was the reason John Lewis was with us that day. More on that shortly. But John Lewis also said,
  • “I thought I would die on that bridge that day” as the billy club came down and the horses surged forward. “I thought I saw death that day. I thought I saw death.”
  • What we did – what he and King and Daniels and so many others did in those tumultuous, too often fatal years, yet years of hope and progress, what THEY did “saved the soul of America.”

John Lewis was there to receive the Jonathan M. Daniels ’61 Humanitarian Award from VMI. It is only the fourth time it has been given in almost 20 years. Earlier recipients were Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young, and international humanitarian Dr. Paul Hebert.

Jonathan Daniels was working in civil rights in Alabama, outside of Selma, when he gave his life to take the gunshot intended for a 17-year-old African American, one of his fellow protesters. Ruby Sales went on to attend theological seminary, work as a social activist, and found SpiritHouse in Washington, DC.

John Lewis also reminded us that we must not say we haven’t made progress. Those signs, those “White” and “Colored” signs, he said, will not be seen again except in museums. Books. Films. And the young men and women of VMI who sat listening, he said, must carry it on.

If anyone can say this now, in spite of Ferguson, in spite of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, in spite of all we see around us, it is John Lewis.

We hear you, Congressman Lewis. This country was founded on great promise with a subtext fabric of some lies. Can we now unveil them, confront them, lay them to rest? And do we start making the necessary trouble?

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