Tribute to Congressman John Lewis

July 23, 2020

As the nation mourns the passing of civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis, we at Bradley University remember his special visit on April 11, 2014.  We were very fortunate to have Congressman Lewis as the keynote speaker for Bradley’s 50th-anniversary celebration of the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act.  The celebration paid tribute to the pivotal legislative role of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (he secured the support of 27/33 Republican Senators to support the civil rights bill).

The Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service hosted a lunch at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, where Hines kindergarten student Duante Edwards read to John Lewis the story of Martin Luther King Jr.  There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. Lewis was the last living member of King’s inner circle, and at the age of 23, John Lewis spoke at the March on Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.

During his visit, I was struck by his humble spirit, his genuine love for all, and his complete lack of bitterness even though he had been arrested 40 times and beaten horribly during the civil rights movement.  Before he spoke at the main event hosted at the Renaissance Coliseum, two Bradley speech team members (Jerome Gregory and Dawne McClure) did compelling dramatic presentations. The Heritage Ensemble Choir led the packed crowd, who was standing with locked arms to each other, in singing the famous civil rights songs “We Shall Overcome” and “Song of Freedom.”

When John Lewis came to the podium to speak, he had tears in his eyes and said that he had been so moved by the events of the day, that he was going to ditch his prepared remarks and speak from his heart.  His words that day left a lasting mark on the students, faculty, staff and community members.  And, given the current civil unrest and cries for social and racial justice, his words have great relevance for today.

Here are a few examples of direct quotes John Lewis passionately gave at Bradley University on that memorable day:

  • “The struggle for freedom, the struggle to liberate the human spirit is as old as the dawn of history and fresh as the morning dew.”

  • “In the Civil Rights Movement, we were taught to wear peace, to wear love, to wear non-violence, to find a way to respect every human being, to love every human being.”

  • “You see something that is not right, that is wrong, that is not fair, that is not just, you have to speak up, speak out and work with others to bring about change.  And those of you who live in this great state, and study, and support this great University, you have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate to prepared to disturb the order of things to make it right.”

  • “We must never give up, never give in. Never become bitter or hostile.  We must keep our eyes on the prize and keep the faith. That is our mission.”

  • “As citizens of this piece of real estate called America, we must work together to create a beloved world.  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.”

After his speech, Lewis received a thunderous standing ovation. Congressman Lewis personified goodness and humility.  His voice will be deeply missed.  Rest in a well deserved peace.

- Brad McMillan, Executive Director, Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service, Bradley University