John Lewis, at age 23, was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was one of the "Big Six" leaders who organized the March on Washington. On August 28, 1963, he addressed the crowd minutes before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. 55 years later, this Freedom Rider, US Congressman, and lifelong champion of civil rights gave all those at Harvard’s 367th Commencement today a very personal call to action, to take a stand on injustice in any of its forms:
“My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, stand up, say something, and speak out.”
He also gave credit to Harvard’s President Faust for getting the University into ‘necessary trouble’ for Harvard’s work in advancing economic and social justice for all.
For seven decades John Lewis has exemplified the power of persistence and participation in the process of creating equity across our society for all of our citizens, working to advance economic justice across all of America's diverse communities. Lewis shouldered a 15-year effort to gain bipartisan support, until in 2003 President George W. Bush signed the bill into law that established The National Museum of African American History and Culture. Decades before that, it was his work, with the work of thousands of others, that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965: enacted to dismantle legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote.
Said Lewis today about that hard-won right to vote: “The vote is precious. It’s almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent instrument or tool we have in our democratic society, and we must use it.”