Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) is a living legend of the civil rights movement and we get to take selfies with him. We can touch him. Wrap our arms around his shoulders. Most importantly, we get to listen to his speeches and live-tweet them.
And after he is finished, we can say that, just for a few minutes, we got to stand in his same space and ask a few questions, if he can spare the time. We get to experience civil rights history from a man who shaped its course—not a history book that interprets his influence. Lewis—who was bloodied and bludgeoned during the march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama in 1965—was at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia on Monday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death and the speech King delivered at the university roughly five months before his assassination.
Back then, King delivered a speech titled, “The Future of Integration.” King, whose legacy has been extremely sanitized in today’s times, shared a message that stressed the value of Americans of all races coming together to confront the evils of segregation. He also condemned the Vietnam War and admonished America for investing more in weapons of war than in spending for the poor.
It was a radical tone many thought went well beyond his role as a civil rights leader, said James Mingle, who was the student government president at what was then St. Joseph’s College at the time and who played a role in inviting King to the campus back in October 1967.
“He was controversial then. Folks felt he was speaking outside of his domain as a civil rights leader,” Mingle, now 72, said. “‘You shouldn’t be speaking about the war,’” he recalled, reflecting some people’s opinion of King at the time.
In his speech Monday morning, Lewis focused on the need for the nation to unify, especially for the undocumented residents whom President Donald Trump and his Republican flock have treated cruelly.
“We have hundreds and thousands of Dreamers,” Lewis said, referring to people who were brought to the U.S. as children without documentation. “It’s not fair. It’s not right that so many of these young people and people not so young have to live in fear. We need to set them on a path to citizenship. It’s the right thing to do.”
During Lewis’ 20-plus-minute speech, neither he nor the speakers before him said Trump’s name, even though the current occupant of the White House has said Lewis’ name on Twitter.
After Lewis told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd in January 2017 that it would be “almost impossible” to work with Trump and that he wasn’t a “legitimate president,” Trump responded brashly on Twitter, writing, “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk—no action or results. Sad!”
Taicha Morin, a 20-year-old sophomore from Brooklyn, N.Y., who shared the stage with Lewis and struggled to compose herself as he spoke, said that Lewis struck the ideal chord with the audience. Even though Lewis did not directly condemn Trump’s racism, she felt that Lewis addressed it head-on by talking about the need for the nation to come together.
“Trump is one of those aspects but [white supremacy] existed before the Trump era,” she said. “Trump allowed these things to surface. We’re not just dealing with Trump. Trump is just one person. There’s more than Trump to deal with in our country. So I think the way [Lewis] phrased his speech was perfectly appropriate.”
It is not surprising that Lewis didn’t mention Trump’s name during his talk Monday. He’s too much of an icon to punch down to Trump’s racist peasantry. Instead, he recalled to the captivated audience Pope Francis’ speech before Congress in 2015, in which he said, “We are all immigrants. We all come from some other place.”
Lewis said that during the planning of the March on Washington in 1963, A. Philip Randolph reportedly said, “We all come from some other place. Our foremothers and forefathers maybe came in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”
“Dr. King put it another,” Lewis added. “‘We must all learn to live together as brothers and sisters. If not, we will perish as fools.’ It doesn’t matter whether we’re 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 house.”
Lewis had plenty of opportunities to unload on Trump’s racism, but he didn’t. His stature as an understudy of King stands as a testament against Trump’s white supremacist presidency, simply by being John Lewis and carrying the torch for King, the man he credits for guiding his life and salvaging America’s dignity.
“If it weren’t for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I don’t know what would have happened to our country,” Lewis said. “This man taught us to stand up, to speak up and to speak out. The signs that I saw when I was growing up. Those signs are gone. The signs that said, ‘White Waiting’ and ‘Colored Waiting’; White Men’ and ‘Colored Men’; ‘White Women and Colored Women.’ The only place we would see those signs today is in a book. In a museum. In a video. So when you tell me nothing has changed, I feel like saying, ‘Walk in my shoes because Martin Luther King Jr. passed this way.’”
Hagan Arena, where Lewis spoke, wasn’t filled to capacity, likely because of the heavy rain that fell Monday on Philadelphia. But for those who were present, you could tell they were enthralled by the greatness of the moment. It was clear they were in awe of a man who could have been killed marching with King being there to tell them about the man who did lose his life fighting for equality.
“Wow. Oh my God. He’s a living legend,” Hadassah Colbert, a 20-year-old sophomore from Lancaster, Pa., told me after Lewis finished his speech. “When he got to the part where he said, ‘We’re not moving backwards, we’re moving forwards.’ Our political climate right now, especially here, you see things and you say, ‘Is it 1960 or 2018?’ So him saying that gave me a revive that I needed.”
Thankfully, Lewis is here to help revive us all. May we all hope to be so fortunate to bear witness.