Ceremonial Events - Commencement
Commencement 2007 Speaker and Honorary Degree Recipient
The Honorable John R. Lewis, a Georgia congressman since 1986 and a longtime passionate advocate for civil rights, will deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree from the University of Vermont at the 203rd commencement ceremony on May 20.
John R. Lewis has been called the “conscience of the U.S. Congress” by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. He has been a strong voice for civil rights throughout his life and helped to lead many of the seminal protests of the movement in the 1960s. At the age of 23, Lewis was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in 1963. His work as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during that era helped to inspire student activism nationwide, including a 1964 visit to UVM where he participated in the “Pride and Prejudice” Vermont Conference.
That John Lewis, one of the major leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, survived repeated, brutal attacks by police and troopers – and more than 40 arrests for his activism – is remarkable, but it is not the salient fact of his life. His commitment to non-violence was and continues to be the courageous touchstone of his life. The now nine-term Congressman Lewis (D-Georgia) is held in high esteem by politicians on both sides of the aisle for his ethical standards and moral principles. The man whom Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress” and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) has lauded for his courage, earned his status the hard way.
Lewis, the son of sharecroppers, grew up on his family’s farm near Troy, Alabama. His was a segregated life, but his birth timing – 1940 – proved serendipitous for a coming-of-age epic. Inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott and by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he committed himself early to activism and to King’s doctrine of non-violence.
As a student at Fisk University, where he earned a degree in religion and philosophy, Lewis organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. In 1961, he risked his life in the Freedom Rides and helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an effort he would later lead as chairman. At the age of 23, Lewis was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963.
Two years later, on March 7, 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams led more than 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on their way to Montgomery. On the other side of the bridge lawmen were waiting and brutally attacked the peaceful demonstrators including Lewis, whose skull was fractured. The event became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The Selma to Montgomery marches marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and ultimately resulted in the passing of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lewis later became director of the Voter Education Project, and during his leadership, VEP added nearly four million minorities to the rolls. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed him director of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency. Following service on the Atlanta City Council, he was elected to Congress in 1986, representing Atlanta and nearby areas. In November 2006, Esquire Magazine named him “one of the Nine Pillars of Congress,” describing him as “a beacon of probity in the House.”
Among his numerous awards, Lewis received the Martin Luther King Jr. Non-Violence Peace Prize and the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for lifetime achievement. His autobiography, written with Michael D’Orso, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, was published in 1998.
At the groundbreaking of the King memorial on the National Mall last November,
Lewis said of King: “He inspired us to get in trouble, but it was good
trouble, necessary trouble.” The King monument, he said, reminds us “that
it is better to love and not to hate; it is better to reconcile and not divide;
it is better to build and not tear down.”