“If there were no airplanes, I would have walked across America to be here tonight to sing the praise song to John Lewis,” began Alfre Woodard, the night’s first speaker for the “Portraits of John Lewis: Celebrating the 75th Birthday” festivities at the Tabernacle in Atlanta Saturday.
“I wouldn’t have even caught a ride in a car if offered because I would have wanted every footfall to represent the concentrated steps John Lewis has taken on behalf of every American then and now and those to come,” she continued to thunderous applause. “His world compass always points true north.”
More than a month after his actual Feb. 21 birthday, a motley crew assembled to celebrate the typically modest Lewis. Celebrities Kim Fields, Tichina Arnold, Terri J. Vaughn, Dulé Hill, Dionne Warwick and A.J. Calloway joined politicians Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Democratic National Committee chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida to honor Lewis during an event that featured performances by the Indigo Girls, Demetria McKinney, Jennifer Holliday, Regina Belle and the Anointed Pace Sisters.
Videotaped messages from President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton were played, as were pieces narrated by John Legend and onetime Georgia Democratic gubernatorial challenger and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, Jason Carter. The musical theater production Which Side Are You On?, inspired by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was performed by students from Clark Atlanta, Morehouse and Spelman and was particularly well received.
In his message, President Obama referenced their recent trip to commemorate Selma, Ala., where Lewis, while a college student, was severely beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago during “Bloody Sunday.”
“It was one of the privileges of my life to share the stage with you that day,” Obama said. “This country changed because of you. This country is more just, more fair, more generous, more free because of you. It is my hope that generations come to know your story and [that of] the civil rights movement.”
When Rep. Lewis finally hit the stage, following Belle, he danced a little but remained as humble as ever.
“The only thing that I did,” he explained, while flanked by the evening’s many participants, “I was inspired by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. to find a way to get in the way.”
Later at the after-party sponsored by a group of young professionals at the Cotton Club at the same venue, Lewis admitted, “I still don’t believe that I’m really 75. I feel more than lucky, but blessed, that I’m still here. I almost died on that bridge in Selma.” He also noted his support for the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s very inspiring to see these young people getting out here speaking truth to power,” he said.
Shortly afterward, Calloway, with Lewis by his side, stopped the music to reiterate his admiration for the congressman, whom he saw during Selma 50 activities. “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, and many other African Americans wouldn’t be able to do what they do in America. We need to understand and pay homage to this man while he’s alive and while he can accept it,” he told the crowd, before also issuing a challenge for the younger generation to pick up the torch to finish the struggle.
“I had some doubt that I would survive the Freedom Rides in 1961, the same year that Barack Obama was born, when we were beaten at that Greyhound station at Montgomery,” Lewis confessed. “Just to think, today, we have come so far, and people who tell me nothing has changed, I feel like saying, ‘Well, come and walk in my shoes.’
“The signs that I saw growing up, those signs are gone, and the only places those signs appear today would be in a book, a museum or in a video, but the struggle is not over. We have to get out there and continue to push and pull. We are one people. We are one family. We are one house,” he insisted.
“There is too much police violence,” he continued. “There are too many brothers, young Hispanics, being accused and mishandled. Almost every other day something is happening, whether it’s in Virginia or in Michigan or in California or here in Georgia. We must speak up and speak out. So hang in there, keep the faith and keep your eyes on the prize. Thank you for celebrating my birthday.”
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.