By Kenya King (www.atlantadailyworld.com)
After 25 years of public service and working at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, on Feb. 15, Congressman John Lewis received the highest award for any civilian, the Medal of Freedom, from President Barack Obama.
“I feel deeply moved and touched,” said Lewis, “that President Obama, the first African-American president, would honor me in such a way.”
“When he called a few weeks ago and said that he would be presenting this medal, I shed some tears, and today I did everything possible to keep from crying. It says something about the distance we’ve come and the progress we’ve made in the little role that I played in helping create a more perfect union,” said Lewis.
One of the few living legends of the Civil Rights Movement and the last surviving member of the “Big Six,” Lewis was instrumental in getting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed when he helped lead the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. At the march, he and other marchers were brutally beaten in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Lewis was also the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was the youngest person to speak at the March on Washington in 1963.
Lewis says the award is one that is shared in memory of others in the movement. He lamented his thoughts when being presented the medal, as Obama read about his life accomplishments.
“I thought about many colleagues and friends that started on this journey with me. Some were beaten, many were jailed and some were killed. So I accept this honor on behalf of countless individuals – those that stood in unmovable lines, those that bailed us out of jail. Those who did anything they could to help us along the way.
“On behalf individuals like the four little girls that were killed in Birmingham, Jimmy Lee Jackson that was murdered in Perry County, Alabama, and the three civil rights workers that were killed in Mississippi. They didn’t live to see an African American become president. It is my hope that what I try to do today and tomorrow, and in the days to come will honor their memory.”
In helping to continue the legacy and memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this past January, Lewis made history by having a federal building named after Martin Luther King, Jr. (The Martin Luther King Federal Building) — a first in America.
“I thought it would be fitting to name this old building in downtown Atlanta, right on Martin Luther King Drive. It didn’t have a name. Some called it the old post office. I know that when Dr. King was growing up in Atlanta, he probably visited that post office on many occasions,” said Lewis.
Currently representing the 5th District in Atlanta, Lewis said his next plans are simply to continue to work for the people of America, to work for the people in the 5th District, and to make the world a better place for everyone.
Rep. John Lewis made the following comment about receiving this award:
“I accept this great honor on behalf of the countless individuals who decided to stand up, speak up, and speak out, for those who stood in unmovable lines trying to register to vote all across the South, for all of the Freedom Riders who were beaten and jailed, for all the participants of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement who helped transform America forever, and those who could not be here today.
“For me this is a very long journey that began in a rural Alabama sharecropping town so remote, and so distant from the realms of power. To have grown up the way I did, to attend segregated schools in a one-room schoolhouse and end up standing before the President today is a testament to the capacity of this nation to empower even the least among us to play a fundamental role in this country’s evolution. I am so grateful to everyone who helped me along the way – my two loving and devoted parents, my sisters and brothers, my colleagues and friends and my son, John Miles, with special appreciation to my wife, Lillian, for her decades of support and sustenance. Last but not least, I will be eternally grateful to Martin Luther King Jr. who showed me how to speak truth to power and to Rev. Jim Lawson for imbuing me with the discipline and philosophy of non-violent action that changed my life forever.”
Others who received a Medal of Freedom alongside Lewis included poet and author Dr. Maya Angelou; former President George H. W. Bush; businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffet; the sister of the late President John Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith; cellist Yo-Yo Ma; basketball icon Bill Russell; artist Jasper Johns; civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez; and former leader of the AFL-CIO John Sweeney.