Civil Rights Celebration

Rep. John Lewis, center, acknowledges a standing ovation, with Bradley President Joanne Glasser, left, and Rep. Aaron Schock '02, right. (Photo by Duane Zehr)

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By Matt Hawkins
April 14, 2014

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Sen. John Lewis, the only living member of the civil rights movement’s “big six” leadership, spoke of courage and unity at Bradley’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on April 11. Central Illinois politicians joined Lewis to reflect on the movement and the role of Pekin native Everett Dirksen in the process.

“As citizens of this piece of real estate called America, we must work together to create a beloved world,” Lewis said. “We’re one people, one family and we all live in the same house. Let’s work together to create a society at peace with itself.”

Lewis applauded central Illinois natives Abraham Lincoln, Lydia Moss Bradley, Dirksen and Ronald Reagan for their efforts against injustice.

“To be here in this climate, this environment, to be in your presences is almost too much,” he said.

Lewis developed as a civil rights leader in college, where he and classmates studied nonviolent resistance. That developed into business sit-ins, several years as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and his prominent role in the movement.


Celebration of Civil Rights 50th Anniversary

He was arrested 40 times for disturbing the peace, harassed and beaten numerous times, and concussed during the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

Despite the abuse, Lewis said he wasn’t bitter decades later. Instead, it motivated him to humbly continue the fight for justice.

“Is it possible for people in academics and business to come together and just be human?” he said. “We want to be strong, but we’re human. Can we get along and work together to make America strong? Can we just be human?”

Rep. Aaron Schock ‘02 traveled last year on Lewis’ annual commemoration of the Selma-Montgomery march. That journey left a mark on the Congressman.

“I realized I was walking with living history,” Schock said. “By the 1960s, it looked like suicide was our lot, but John Lewis saw the arc of history and that was toward justice.”

In addition to Lewis’ work, dignitaries lauded Dirksen’s crusade for equality and his effort to gain Republican support for the Democrat-sponsored civil rights legislation.

“He left a deep, lasting tradition of doing right,” Schock said. “There are moments when party doesn’t matter, elections don’t matter and even life doesn’t matter.”

Brad McMillan, executive director of Bradley’s Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service, saw a history lesson in Dirksen’s ability to compromise across political divides.

“Genuine, respectful relationships matter. We need to learn how to treat each other better in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “At the end of the day, Sen. Dirksen was able to add 10 substantive amendments to the bill.”

The afternoon celebration also featured speeches from Rep. Cheri Bustos, Rep. Robin Kelly ’78 MA ’82, former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood ‘71 and Frank Mackaman of the Dirksen Congressional Center.

In addition, Bradley speech team students and the Heritage Ensemble of Central Illinois added tributes to the civil rights movement.

The event capped the University’s yearlong celebration of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which featured fine arts productions and a series of speakers featuring civil rights-era figures, civil rights experts and academics.