U.S. Representative John Lewis Addresses Bard College’s Graduating Class of 2017

U.S. Representative John Lewis Addresses Bard College’s Graduating Class of 2017

August 13, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


It is now my pleasure to introduce an
individual who has already been introduced to you. He was born the son of
sharecroppers in Alabama and he attended segregated schools. He was a student at
Fisk University and organized sit-ins in order to fight segregated lunch
counters in Nashville, Tennessee. He rose to fame in the 60s as head of the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, and he was one of the keynote speakers in the legendary March on Washington in August 1963. And he was perhaps most famous in the 60s for his role in the leadership of the
famous march in Selma, Alabama in 1965. He was the subject of more than 40 arrests, physical attacks, and injuries. He committed himself to the battle for
civil rights and nonviolent protest and he became director of the Voter
Education Project, which was an attempt to realize the voting rights bill that
finally came into law and which has now, unfortunately, been eviscerated by the
current Supreme Court. In 1977 he was appointed by President Carter to direct
the Action Volunteer Program, and in 1981 he won a contest for election to the
Atlanta City Council, and since 1986 he has been a member of the House of
Representatives of the United States. He has received every possible award. There isn’t an award which he hasn’t received. [Laughter] There is not an honorary degree
he hasn’t received. I really have tremendous sympathy for
the number of events that he must have gone to. [Laughter] So I want to point out that it’s
a particular honor that he accepted this, not as the first of such an event, but
toward the middle of an accumulating number of recognitions and awards. He does us honor by being here. He also not only is a public servant, he
is an author. His graphic novels, ‘March,’ now in three installments, the last one
to actually win the National Book Award. He has become a writer of note and these
graphic novels have become part of the curriculum all over the United States. He’s a man of extreme modesty, enormous accomplishment, unrivaled courage, and it is a great honor to recognize one of the few heroes of our time: John Lewis. [Enthusiastic applause] Thank you, Mr. President; members of the Board of Trustees; Mr. Chairman; deans; inspired faculty; proud parents, family, and friends;
and to you, the Class of 2017. [Applause] I’m honored to be here, to see each and
every one of you. You look good. You look beautiful, handsome, smart, and ready to take on the world. [Applause] Mr. President, thank you for those kind words. Thank you. To each and every one of you receiving a diploma
today, I say a congratulations. This is your day. Enjoy it. Take a long deep breath, and take it all in. But tomorrow you must be prepared to roll
up your sleeves because the world is waiting for talented men and women to lead it to a
better place. [Applause] You heard it said that I grew up in rural
Alabama. That is true. I grew up 50 miles from Montgomery, outside of a little place called Troy. [Single cheer] It’s OK. [Broad laughter] My father was a sharecropper, a tenant farmer. But back in 1944 when I was four years old—and I do remember when I was four—my father had saved $300 dollars, and a man sold him 110 acres of land. My family still owns that land today. [Applause] On that farm, we raised a lot of cotton, corn, peanuts, hogs, cows, and chickens. On the farm, it was my responsibility to care for the chickens. I fell in love raising chickens. Now I know as graduates, as smart, gifted
students, you don’t know anything about raising chickens. [Laughter] Do we have anyone here that knows anything about raising chickens? Audience member: Yes, I do! Well, why don’t we compare notes? When a setting hen was set, we had to take
the fresh eggs, mark ‘em with a pencil, place them under the setting hen, and wait
for three long weeks for the little chicks to hatch. Some of you may be saying, “Now, John Lewis, why do you mark those fresh eggs with a pencil before you place them under the setting hen?” Well, from time to time, another hen would
get on that same nest, and there would be some more fresh eggs, and we had to tear the fresh eggs from the eggs already under the setting hen. Do you follow me? No, you don’t follow me. That’s OK. [Laughter] So when these little chicks were hatched,
I would fool these setting hens, I would cheat on these setting hens, I would take these
little chicks and give them to another hen and put them in a box with a lantern and raise
them on their own, get some more fresh eggs, mark ‘em with a pencil, place them under
the setting hen, and encourage the setting hen to stay on the next for another three
weeks. When I look back on it, I kept on fooling
these setting hens and cheating on these setting hens. It was not the right thing to do. It was not the moral thing to do, not the
most loving thing to do, not the most nonviolent thing to do. It was not the most democratic thing to do,
but I was never quite able to save $18.98 to order the most inexpensive incubator…
from the Sears Roebuck store. We used to get the Sears Roebuck catalog. As graduates, as young people, you’ve never seen one of these catalogs. [Laughter] It’s a big book, it’s a heavy book, it’s
a thick book. We call it a wish book: “I wish I had this;
I wish I had that.” [Laughter] As a little boy about eight or nine years
old, I wanted to be a minister. I wanted to preach the gospel. So, with help of my brothers and sisters and
cousins, we would gather all of our chickens together in the chicken yard, like you are
gathered here today, and we would have church. And I would start speaking or preaching, when I look back on it, some of these chickens would bow their heads. [Laughter] Some of these chickens would shake their heads. [Laughter] They never quite said amen, but I’m convinced that some of those chickens that I preached to during the 40s and the 50s, tended
to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today in Congress. [Applause] And some of those chickens were just a little more productive. [Laughter] At least they produced eggs. [Laughter] But that’s enough of that. When we would visit the little town of Troy,
visit Montgomery, visit Tuskegee, visit Birmingham, I saw these signs that said “white men,”
“colored men,” “white women,” “colored women,” “white waiting,” “colored
waiting.” To go down town on a Saturday afternoon to
the theater, to see a movie, all of us little black children had to go upstairs to the balcony. All the little white children when downstairs
to the first floor. I kept asking my mother, my father, my grandparents,
my great-grandparents: “Why?” They would say, “That’s the way it is. That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.” But one day, in 1955, 15 years old, in the
10th grade, I heard about Rosa Parks, I heard the words of Martin Luther King Jr. on an
old radio during the Montgomery bus boycott. And the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and the actions of Rosa Park inspired me to find a way to get in the way. I got in the way, I got in trouble, but I
call it good trouble, necessary trouble. I say to you, the graduates of the Class of
2017, you must go out and get in trouble, necessary trouble that helps make our country and our world a better place. You must do it. [Applause] When you see something that is not right,
something that is not fair, something that is not just, you have a moral obligation,
a mission, and a mandate to stand up, to speak up, and speak out. Those of us who live on this little planet
we call Earth, we have a right to know what is in the food we eat. We have a right to know what is in the water we drink. We have a right to know what is in the air
we breathe. [Applause] So I say to you, my young friends, it is left
up to you. You must do your part, and when you leave
this great college, go out there, get in the way, make a little noise, be bold, be brave,
be courageous. Use your education and your training to redeem the soul of our nation and maybe help make our world a better place for all human beings. Our world, our little world, our little planet
is dependent on you, so, please, don’t let us down. You know during the 60s, as the president told you, I was arrested a few times, 40 times, beaten, left bloody, unconscious. I thought I was going to die on that bridge
in Selma. Since I’ve been in Congress five more times, and I’ll probably get arrested again for something. [Laughter] But on that bridge, I thought I saw death,
but I lived. You will live to tell the story. You can do it. As you go out there, do your work. Never become bitter or hostile. Never get lost in a sea of despair. Keep the faith, keep your eyes on the prize,
and never hate. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “hate
is too heavy a burden to bear.” During the 60s, I met a man by the name
A. Philip Randolph. He was the dean of black leadership who helped plan the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. This man was born in Jacksonville, Florida. He moved to New York City. He became a champion of civil rights, human rights, and labor rights. From time to time, as we were planning to
march on Washington, he would say, “Maybe our foremothers and our forefathers all came to this great land in different ships, but we all in the same boat now, and we must look out for each other.” So it doesn’t matter whether you black or
white, Latino, Asian American, or Native American. We’re one people. We’re one family. We all live in the same house. Not just the American house, but the world’s house. So, we must learn to live together. And never give up, never give in, dream dreams, and make those dreams real. I wish you well. So, with faith, hope, peace, and with love,
thank you very much. [Exuberant applause]