Emory Report
February 13, 2006
Volume 58, Number 19


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February 13, 2006
Lewis issues call to action in Glenn speech

BY Michael Terrazas

John Lewis got in the way. As a boy growing up in rural Alabama in the 1940s and ’'50s, he was often told by his elders to behave himself, to not question the Jim Crow culture of
the South.

Then, one night in 1955, when he was 15 years old, Lewis first heard the voice of Martin Luther King Jr., broadcast over the radio as King spoke to a crowd in Montgomery, Ala., urging them to boycott the city's buses in support of Rosa Parks, who had just made national headlines by refusing to yield her seat to a white man.

"When I heard his voice, I felt like he was talking directly to me,"” Lewis said. “"I decided to get in trouble. I decided to get in the way."

Georgia's congressional representative from the 5th District now has been getting in the way for more than half a century, and he visited Emory last week to kick off Founders Week with a Feb. 5 speech in Glenn Auditorium. Introduced by President Jim Wagner as man of “"physical courage and large humanity,” Lewis used the occasion not only to talk about his own battles but to challenge his host institution.

"This is a shining moment in the history of Emory," he said, referring to the goals set forth in the strategic plan. "[The University] is embarking on a new challenging mission … [making] a commitment to ask the challenging and difficult questions of our time … [and] to build the moral standing of the leaders of the 21st century.”

His rich, baritone voice rising and falling with the rhythm of his words, Lewis sounded every bit the minister he aspired to be while growing up. He urged his listeners not simply to dream of better days, but to make them happen.

You must do more than discuss and debate,” he said. “You must find a way to act—a way to get in the way. You must use your ideas, use your dreams, and put them into action. You have to do it.”

Lewis talked about his role in the civil rights movement, including his helping found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, his participation in the Freedom Rides to integrate Southern bus terminals, his work in registering black voters, and he reminded the audience that the struggle to secure civil rights lasts “not for a month, or a season, or a school term, but for a lifetime.”

You must find your passion and make your contribution,” Lewis said. “Be maladjusted to the problems and conditions of today, and then find a way to get in the way.”

Lewis also told the story that lent the title to his 1998 autobiography, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. As a boy he would visit, along with his brothers and sisters and cousins, his aunt’s small shotgun house. One night, a violent storm rocked the Alabama countryside, and Lewis’ aunt huddled him and the other children together. As the powerful winds threatened to rip the shack from its foundation, the aunt would herd the children into one corner or another, hoping their collective weight could hold the house to the ground. They were frightened, Lewis said, but they never gave up. They “walked with the wind”—and never abandoned the house.

We must never leave the house,” Lewis told his audience. “We must not give up. We must keep the faith. We must follow the truth, wherever it may lead. That is our mission.”