U.S. Representative and civil rights leader John Lewis (1940-2020) received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters and delivered the keynote address at Portland State University’s Commencement on June 12, 2004.
Lewis served as the Representative for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District from 1987 until his death in July 2020. In his PSU address, he describes his early life in Alabama and the experiences which inspired his lifelong dedication to social justice, equality, and principles of non-violence.
He relates his early experiences with racial segregation in the South and the hope he felt when he first heard Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on the radio in 1955. Lewis began his career as an activist and political leader as a college student, joining the Freedom Riders against segregation in 1961 and serving as the chair of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee from 1963-1966.
Voting rights and the democratic process were key issues for Lewis. He describes how hundreds of thousands of Black citizens in the South were systematically and unjustly denied their right to vote. In 1965, he was one of the leaders of the “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” in which over 600 marchers gathered in Selma, Alabama, to demand justice for Black voters. Lewis and other marchers knelt in prayer while state troopers beat and trampled them; in his address, Lewis honors the protestors who lost their lives. “Bloody Sunday” led ultimately to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lewis urged the class of 2004 to have the courage and persistence to get into “necessary trouble” to realize social justice and create change. “You must find a way to get in the way. Find your cause; follow the dictates of your conscience; find your compass, and just go for it. Keep on pushing, and keep on pulling.”
[Representative Lewis’ address is part of Portland State University Archives’ Commencement archives. It was originally recorded on VHS cassette and is now available on PSU’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AP3DDGeYjF4 For more information about this collection, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.]