Civil Rights leader and Congressman John Lewis encourages students to civic engagement.
Wednesday, Aug. 29 marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, but it was another storm that Congressman John Lewis described in his Convocation address, a storm that battered his aunt's house as a child. “I thought this old house would blow away,” he said. “One corner appeared to be lifting from its foundation and we walked to that corner to try and hold the house down with our little bodies.”
The battering wind and rain of this memory became a metaphor for other destructive forces: racism, inequality, hatred. “It may be the house of New York,” Lewis said, “the house of California, the house of America or the world – but you must do your part to hold the house together.”
Lewis captivated the audience with stories of the Civil Rights movement: working side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr., participating in the Freedom Rides and demonstrating for equality in voter registration. It was an example, he said, “of the ability of ideas to transform a nation.”
“I tasted the bitter fruits of segregation,” Lewis said, recalling his hatred of the “whites only” signs of the segregated South. “Our country is a better country because a whole generation got in the way,” he said.
“Find a way to get in the way,” Lewis urged. “Speak up, speak out, do not be silent…Maybe our foremothers and forefathers came to this land in different ships, but we're all in the same boat now.”
At the Convocation ceremony, Lewis accepted the President's Medal, an award which recognizes individuals for outstanding service to the community, the country and their profession.
In his address, Colleges' President Mark D. Gearan called the event “a time to pause to mark our start and our beginning.” It is “an extraordinary moment,” he explained, drawing on the success of the Campaign for the Colleges and the William Smith Centennial. Hobart and William Smith have distinguished themselves with “teaching excellence, research prominence and service to our community.”
It was a feeling shared by Chairman of the Board David Deming '75, who noted a “tremendous swelling of pride in these Colleges” and a “commitment to prepare young men and women to lead lives of consequence.”
Other speakers included Provost and Dean of the Faculty Teresa Amott and Thomas Drennen, associate professor of economics and the recipient of the 2006 Excellence in Teaching Award.
Following Congressman Lewis' remarks, two student speakers, Shavonne Ward '09 and Felipe Estefan '08 called the members of the student body to become engaged and active citizens. “If following your passion can lead to making a difference, than what's your passion?” Ward asked.
Estefan praised Lewis for practicing “peaceful, but powerful and determined action” and serving as an example of a time when “students expressed their commitment to equality and justice.”
At a dinner and reception following the ceremony, Lewis praised his experience at HWS. “I have been all over this country to speak at colleges and universities,” he said. “And let me tell you, there is a sense of community here that I have not seen elsewhere. Walk tall. Walk with the wind. Let the spirit of these Colleges be your guide… Today's experience has been like being at the top of the mountain – now tomorrow morning I have to return to the valley because there is still work to do.”
You may listen to Congressman Lewis' speech in its entirety by clicking the “play” button below.