By Special to the Daily World
WASHINGTON D.C. — The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies has presented U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) with its highest honor, the 2011 Louis E. Martin Great American Award, in recognition of his decades of exemplary service as an advocate for civil and human rights and for strengthening the American community.
The award was presented Tuesday, May 3, at the Joint Center’s Annual Gala Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington. The audience of more than 500 people included members of Congress and other elected and appointed government officials, as well as business, civic and community leaders from across the country.
Lewis was recognized for his more than 50 years as a trailblazing community and political organizer, civil rights leader and member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Joint Center President and CEO Ralph B. Everett noted that the breadth of Lewis’ career — from his valiant efforts as one of the original Freedom Riders in the early 1960s to his moral leadership today on issues of vital national interest — is bridged by an unswerving commitment to citizen participation in civic and political affairs.
“Congressman Lewis continues to lead by his example, working for racial harmony and inspiring all Americans to make the most of their right to engage in the process of shaping our nation’s future,” said Everett.
Last night’s presentation was made on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the day that the first Freedom Riders left Washington by bus on a trip through southern states to exercise their right to interstate travel and to challenge local laws or customs that enforced segregation.
Lewis participated in that first Freedom Ride and was among those riders who were brutally beaten during the trip.
Recalling those events at the dinner, Lewis said the first violence on those rides occurred in Rock Hill, S.C., when he and his companions attempted to enter a bus station waiting room that had been reserved for Whites. But, as a measure of how things have changed since then, “One of the same individuals who beat me and beat my seatmate came to my office two years ago and apologized,” he said.
“Some people ask me these days whether the election of President Obama is the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. I’m quick to say ‘no. It’s just a major down payment.’ There are still too many people in America that are left behind,” the congressman said.
The Louis E. Martin Great American Award is named after the legendary journalist, presidential advisor and co-founder of the Joint Center. It is bestowed annually upon an individual who exemplifies Martin’s passion for justice, compassion and builds bridges to close racial and ethnic divides.
Previous award recipients include former Presidents Jimmy Carter and William J. Clinton, Congressmen James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), Muhammad Ali, lawyer and civil rights leader Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the late civil rights activist Dr. Dorothy I. Height, and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.
The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies is one of the nation’s leading research and public policy institutions and the only one whose work focuses primarily on issues of particular concern to African Americans and other people of color. To learn more, visit www.jointcenter.org.