Georgia congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis will be the featured speaker at Union College’s 219th commencement, college officials announced Thursday.
More than 480 students in the Class of 2013 will receive degrees during the ceremony, scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday, June 16, on Hull Plaza.
Calling Lewis one of his “personal heroes,” college President Stephen C. Ainlay said having Lewis share his remarkable story with seniors would be inspiring.
“John Lewis is a remarkable person whose life story has been an inspiration to me and to many others,” Ainlay said in a news release. “One of the most important figures in the American civil rights movement, he consistently demonstrated commitment and courage. He continues to ask us to set our sights on making the world a better place.”
Lewis, who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987, is the son of sharecroppers, grew up in Alabama and attended segregated public schools. He was inspired to work for human rights while listening to radio broadcasts by Martin Luther King Jr.
At Fisk University, Lewis organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, and he was one of the original 13 Freedom Fighters who were beaten and arrested for challenging segregation on interstate buses. He also helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was critical in mobilizing young people to stage nonviolent sit-ins and other demonstrations.
At age 23, Lewis was an architect and keynote speaker for the March on Washington in August 1963, when 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis is the last surviving speaker from the march.
He helped lead hundreds in a peaceful march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965. In what became known as Bloody Sunday, marchers were met by Alabama state troopers with billy clubs and tear gas. Lewis suffered a fractured skull in the violent confrontation. Many believe the televised images of marchers being beaten were the catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act several months later.
Each year, students in Union College lecturer Melinda Lawson’s class, “The Civil Rights Movement,” are assigned to read Lewis’s autobiography, “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.” The book is also required reading for those who participate in the “Civil Rights Public History Mini-term,” a nine-city, seven-state tour following the path of the movement that Lawson leads each December.
Lewis’ latest book is “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change.”
Lewis was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 by President Barack Obama, who praised him for his courage and commitment to social justice. He will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree from Union College.