Civil Rights Leader John Lewis Speaks at Open-to-the-Public Program Jan. 20

Jan 12, 2016
Brenau Staff

NOTE: This event has been postponed due to inclement weather. The event will be rescheduled and a date will be announced as soon as available.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who has represented Georgia's 5th Congressional District since 1987 and played a pivotal role in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, will speak at Brenau University on Wednesday, Jan. 20.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who has represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987 and played a pivotal role in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, will speak at Brenau University on Wednesday, Jan. 20.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, one of the most significant figures of the American civil rights movement, will appear for a public presentation at Brenau University’s Pearce Auditorium at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 20.

Lewis will also sign books – which will be for sale for those who wish to purchase them – in Sellars Gallery, adjacent to the auditorium, following his presentation. Pearce Auditorium is at 202 Boulevard in Gainesville, Georgia.

There is no charge for the event. However, seating will be on a first-come-first-served basis to the public after members of the Brenau Women’s College first-year class are seated. The students collectively read the Georgia congressional delegation dean’s illustrated book MARCH as a common reader assignment for their required seminar for all members of the Class of 2019.

Fittingly, Lewis’ appearance at Brenau occurs during the week celebrating the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Lewis served as one of King’s chief lieutenants during the 1960s for field work and demonstrations throughout the Southeast. For example, he was a key leader in and on the front line of the pivotal 1965 voter rights demonstration and march that culminated in Selma, Alabama, when police mounted on horseback attacked and clubbed the peaceful participants. He is the last surviving member of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders who helped put together King’s famous March on Washington in 1963.

“It is a great honor for our institution to host Congressman Lewis on this occasion,” said Brenau University President Ed Schrader. “He is a true American hero who has shed blood and dedicated his life to public service and to win basic human rights for all.”

The university’s first-year seminar for the 2015-16 academic year focused on the civil rights era, with Lewis’ best-seller book as a central text. It is part of a planned three-volume set using the graphic novel approach to storytelling that was coauthored by Lewis and Andrew Aydin, the congressman’s technology policy aide, and illustrated by Indiana artist Nate Powell. The first volume chronicles Lewis’ early years, from his childhood on a sharecropper farm in Pike County, Alabama, to his ascension to the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963.

Brenau’s first-year students typically get an opportunity to meet with authors of common readers, which have included Khaled Hosseini, Katherine Stockett and, in 2014, President Jimmy Carter, who hosted the group for a special presentation at The Carter Center in Atlanta. Lewis’ schedule could not accommodate a meeting during the fall term, however, and it looked like it was not going to happen.

However, Quanesha Davis, a senior history and political science major from Decatur, Georgia, who interned with the university’s department of Student Services, drafted a letter to Lewis, asking him to come to campus and got it signed by every first-year seminar student.

She explained how deeply MARCH and Lewis’ life story had influenced the semester’s activities, shaping the fall’s leadership retreat, on-campus events and freshman courses at the Women’s College.

“Once I learned the students would be reading his book and discussing his accomplishments, I had to reach out to him to let him know how much he had impacted Brenau this year,” Davis said. “The illustrations provided room for your imagination to connect with the words in a way that it probably couldn’t have without the pictures.”

Lewis collaborator Aydin said he is thrilled the comics have inspired Brenau’s freshman to such a great degree. “For our work to be welcome in classrooms and for Lewis’ story to resonate with students,” he said, “it is the culmination of everything we have worked to achieve with MARCH.”

Lewis has represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987. The seat previously had been held by another civil right movement leader, Andrew Young, who would subsequently serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta. In his election bid, he defeated another long-time friend and colleague from the movement, Julian Bond, who died in 2015 after a career that included service in both houses of the Georgia Legislature, founding the Southern Poverty Law Center and a 12-year run as chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“This is such an amazing opportunity to show our students the importance of history and how it directly impacts their lives,” said Jordan Anderson, director of Brenau’s International Studies and Programs. “The greatest lesson that they can take away from his life is that their voice does matter and they really can change the world for the better.”

Lewis was in the news last week when U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a Mississippi native, announced that the first of a new class of Navy ships will be named for him. The Defense Department will award the contract for the USNS John Lewis next summer with construction expected to begin in 2018.

While attending Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, Lewis organized a series of successful sit-ins to protest segregation policies. Along with Diane Nash, who has also appeared at Brenau, he was a founding member of the Freedom Riders who traveled throughout the South in the 1960s in support of school integration, and marched with King in Selma.

As part of the first-year seminar, Brenau students also viewed the critically acclaimed and commercially successful 2014 motion picture Selma, which recounts the voter rights initiative. Canadian-born actor Stephan James portrayed Lewis in the film.

First-year seminar students also visited as a group the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. Some of the classes in the seminar program included a learning technique called Reacting to the Past in which students relived the civil rights era by acting out historical events in class.

“I hope the students understand the importance of what he accomplished, and realize the most important thing that he has done was caring enough to challenge the system that he was taught,” said Davis, who will introduce the congressman to the Brenau audience.

She said that the physical and mental strength exhibited by Lewis as he stood against inequality throughout the Southeast remains a great source of inspiration half a century later for her and her classmates who face their own set of challenges today.

“We have learned from Lewis’ experiences and teaching that, although you may only be one person,” Davis said, “you have the potential to make changes and accomplish anything you feel moved to pursue.”