“For more than 30 years, John Lewis has had an unwavering commitment to the civil rights movement,” then-UNH President Dale Nitzschke said in his 1994 introduction of that year’s commencement speaker. Nitzschke went on to say it would be a great honor to have Lewis speak on “one of the most important days of a UNH student’s life.”
At the time, the civil rights icon had represented Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District for eight years. When he died on July 17, Lewis had served 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. One of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, Lewis is the first Black member of Congress to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. His funeral will take place July 30 at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, once led Martin Luther King Jr. Lewis will be buried in Atlanta’s South-View Cemetery, which was started in 1866 by former slaves.
“As a civil rights activist and political leader, John Lewis demonstrated a courage and resilience that was rare in our country’s history. He was arrested dozens of times, and endured savage beatings, while trying to force his country to realize the basic dignity of African Americans and to grant them the right to vote."
In his address to UNH graduates that May day in 1994, Lewis told students they were witnessing one of the most dramatic and moving periods in history.
“All around the world, we are in the midst of a revolution of ideas and values. The struggle is being waged in every nation, among every people, by peaceful means, by propaganda, diplomacy, financial pressures, strikes, ballots and bullets. We have seen men sacrifice truth for a false and negative peace,” he said.
Lewis had just returned from South Africa and the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela. He told students he was convinced the world had much to learn from the African country on how to build a truly, multiracial democratic society.
“I think South Africa has taken a great leap down that long road toward building a society, as Nelson Mandela has said, free of racism and free of sexism…..Having participated in the American civil rights movement, I know firsthand the difficulty of the struggle to overcome the legacy of an oppressive political system,” Lewis said.
“As I worked throughout the South during the 60s, I saw civil rights workers and indigenous people whom we were trying to help with their heads cracked open by nightsticks, lying in the street weeping from tear gas, calling helplessly for medical aid. I saw old women and young children in peaceful protest, who were run down by policeman on horses, beaten back by fire hoses, and chased by police dogs. Yet these people were still able to forgive, understand, and sing, ‘Ain't going to let nobody turn me around.’"
Speaking words that still ring true today, Lewis stressed “our nation is at a crossroads.” Our mission, he told students, should be to bring people together “speaking a common language and dedicated to a common enterprise — the common good.” You have the power to lead, Lewis said, telling graduates that if they worked for a standard of excellence in their lives, “then the new and better world of which we dream is yours for the building.”
Despite being arrested, teargassed and beaten numerous times — his skull was fractured during the 1965 march in Selma known as “Bloody Sunday” — Lewis remained committed to civil rights throughout his life.
UNH’s Jason Sokol is a historian of the civil rights movement and has written extensively about those years, most recently in “The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.” His research has touched on Lewis as well.
“As a civil rights activist and political leader, John Lewis demonstrated a courage and resilience that was rare in our country’s history. He was arrested dozens of times, and endured savage beatings, while trying to force his country to realize the basic dignity of African Americans and to grant them the right to vote,” Sokol says.
“His recent passing is so tragic because it comes at a moment when African Americans’ basic rights and dignity are once again under assault. Now we have to do the work without him — the work of raising our voices, of protesting in the streets, until our elected leaders rededicate themselves to protecting Black people’s lives, and to making it easier for all Americans to vote.”