By Quinn Mulholland, Harvard College, '18
May 1, 2017
In the spring of 1961, John Lewis, along with several other Freedom Riders fighting for desegregation in the Deep South, were savagely attacked by a group of young white men at a Greyhound bus station in South Carolina. One of these men was Elwin Wilson, a Ku Klux Klan supporter and fervent racist. In 2009, Wilson showed up at the D.C. office of Lewis, who was now a U.S. Congressman. “He said ‘I want to apologize. Will you accept my apology? Will you forgive me?’” Lewis said. “He started crying. I started crying. I hugged him, and I forgave him.”
Lewis recounted this story at last week’s awards ceremony honoring him as the recipient of the 2017 Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award from the Center for Public Leadership (CPL). The story, Lewis said, illustrates the power of forgiveness: “It is in keeping with the philosophy of nonviolence, to be able to forgive, to be able to lay down that burden.” This philosophy undergirds Lewis’s career in civil rights advocacy, one that spans all the way from the Freedom Rides of the 1960s to the current debates over health care and immigration in Congress.
In introducing Lewis, Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Dean Douglas Elmendorf referenced Lewis’s long and extensive career in public service: “I know of no one who has worked more tirelessly or more effectively as a citizen and as an elected official to make our country better.” CPL Co-Director David Gergen also discussed Lewis’s history of fighting for justice in his introduction. “John Lewis has dedicated his life to activism on behalf of human rights,” Gergen said, “always with extraordinary courage, fierce determination, and a capacity to inspire others.”
The Gleitsman Award is given biennially to a leader or team who has improved the quality of life of those in the United States and inspired others to do the same. It is named for Alan Gleitsman, who “wanted to honor those who have demonstrated the power of one individual, through courage, dedication, and activism, to change the course of history,” Gergen said. “What pride he would have taken if he were with us here tonight.”
During his responses to questions from the moderators, Harvard Business School James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration Nancy Koehn and Sheila C. Johnson Fellow and current Harvard Law School student ImeIme Umana, Lewis recounted his experience fighting for civil rights in the Deep South. “I grew up in rural Alabama, as you’ve heard. I tasted the bitter fruits of racism,” he said. Indeed, Lewis was beaten and arrested many times as a result of his involvement in the civil rights movement, including on March 7, 1965 when he led protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Despite the hardships he faced, he never gave up. “You get beaten, you get knocked down, you get arrested a few times,” Lewis said. “It makes you stronger, it makes you more determined.”
Lewis also urged college graduates to change the world for the better: “You have a moral obligation, a mandate to do your best for humankind.” And he is confident that they will. “The young people get it,” Lewis said. “They will lead us to a better place. My faith is in the young.” To those considering running for office, Lewis offered two words of advice: “Do it.”
Lewis’s capacity to inspire others to public service was on full display, not only in Cambridge but also in his home state of Georgia: the same night Lewis received the Gleitsman Award, one of his former interns, Jon Ossoff, was running in a special election for a seat in the House of Representatives vacated by Tom Price, President Trump’s choice for Health and Human Services Secretary. “Think of that, how much his legend has meant now for a rising generation,” Gergen said of Lewis’s influence on Ossoff and others.
Effecting change obviously requires more than just running for office, however. Lewis advised young activists to “pace yourself for the long haul.” Lewis himself is a living example of this. “Just because I'm in Congress, I have not lost my ability to get out there and march,” he quipped. Overall, Lewis emphasized, it is important to do something. “Get out there and help people,” he implored. “Change our society. Help redeem not just the soul of America, but the soul of the world.”