Respecting the Dignity of Every Human Being
On March 7, 1965, a Sunday morning, John Lewis stuffed his backpack with an apple, an orange, two books, a toothbrush and toothpaste. He wanted something to eat and to read in jail, where he knew he would land by day’s end.
The last two items were the most important, Lewis noted. “If you’re going to be with your friends, colleagues and neighbors, you want to be able to brush your teeth,” the legendary civil rights leader told a crowd packed into Cohen Auditorium on the Medford/Somerville campus on April 5.
On that day in March, now known as Bloody Sunday, Martin Luther King Jr. had decided to make local opposition to black voting in Selma, Alabama, a national cause. Escorted by National Guard troops and with the news media in tow, Lewis and 600 others walked in pairs, not saying a word, headed to the state capital, Montgomery, 54 miles away. As they crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge over the Alabama River, they were brutally assaulted by armed state troopers and deputies—violence that was broadcast across the world.
But ask young people today about that morning, or anything to do with the civil rights movement, and you’ll be met with blank stares, said Lewis, one of the last surviving leaders of the movement, who has represented Georgia in Congress for 29 years.
“So many young people growing up in America today know nine words about the movement: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, I have a dream,” said Lewis, who came to campus to give this year’s Alan D. Solomont Lecture on Citizenship and Public Service. “It’s more than that,” he said.
It’s about refusing to press charges against a group of white men who beat you bloody because you’re a black man in a bus station waiting room. It’s about not shouting, disrupting traffic or fighting back during a march, but channeling your anger into a passionate speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that convinces a fellow congressman to withdraw his amendment to stop funding enforcement of the Voter Rights Act, he said.
It’s about respecting the dignity and worth of every human being, Lewis said, a responsibility not just of the state, but of the individual—from little things like remembering to pack your toothbrush before you head to jail, to bigger things like how to live your life. “It means that you don’t put down anyone and don’t give up on anyone,” Lewis said. “It means you continue to struggle to bring the best out of your fellow human being.”
Such action begins with one person—you, Lewis said. “To change America, to make it better, we must make ourselves better. We have to humanize our institutions, humanize ourselves.”
Lewis told one story that’s not in the history books. One Saturday afternoon when he was 4 or 5, he and his siblings and cousins were at an aunt’s house when it started to rain. “It was an unbelievable storm. Wind, thunder, lightning started flashing, the rain beat and beat,” he said. “She was terrified. She thought the house was going to blow away.”
A corner of the house started to lift off the ground. Lewis and the other children walked over to that section and stood there, holding it down with their collective weight. Another corner started lifting, and they did the same. Being in the same room together, working to hold down the house—that’s what the civil rights movement was and is about, he said.
Lewis echoed the same themes in response to an audience question about human rights conflicts today. “It’s a shame and a disgrace in our country to have millions and millions of people living in the shadows,” he said of undocumented immigrants. “We need to set fellow human beings on the path to citizenship.”
On the new Mississippi law that allows business owners to refuse service to LGBTQ customers based on their religious beliefs, Lewis said, “We cannot have equal protection under the law for one group and not for all.
“Maybe our forefathers and foremothers all came to this land in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now,” he said. “No matter whether black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, straight, gay—we’re one people, one family. As Dr. King said, we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters.”
Responding to a question about the hostile discourse that has defined the presidential campaign, Lewis said those in the public arena need to embrace this lesson more than ever.
“In America, a storm is blowing. Wind may come, lightning may flash, rain may beat on the house. Call it a house of Boston, of Atlanta, of New York, call it an American house,” he said. “We must stay together, not just as an American family, but as a world family, and look out and care for each other.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.