Renowned civil rights pioneer Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was a leader of the march on Selma in 1965, will deliver Elms College’s 84th commencement address on May 16, 2015.

Renowned civil rights pioneer Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was a leader of the march on Selma in 1965, will deliver Elms College’s 84th commencement address on May 16, 2015.

Civil Rights Leader Congressman John Lewis to Deliver 2015 Commencement Address

Renowned civil rights pioneer Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was a keynote speaker at the March in Washington in 1963 and a leader of the march on Selma in 1965, will deliver Elms College’s 84th commencement address. The ceremony will begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 16, at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.

Founded in 1928 by the Sisters of St. Joseph (SSJs), College of Our Lady of the Elms is ranked in the top 25 Best Regional Colleges in the North in the U.S. News World Report 2015 rankings, and among the best Catholic colleges by BestColleges.com.

Lewis’ personal and political focus on civil rights fits perfectly with Elms’ commitment to social justice. As commencement speaker, he will deliver a humbling and inspiring message for the Class of 2015 to carry into the world. After all, he lives that message every day: “Whenever I have a tough vote in Congress, I ask myself what would leaders of courage do? What would King and Robert Kennedy do?” he recently wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “What is the right thing to do? What is the fair and honest thing to do?”

“We are honored to have Rep. Lewis as our commencement speaker this year,” said Elms College President Mary Reap, IHM, Ph.D. “His message of peaceful protest in pursuit of social justice is a powerful message for our diverse group of graduates, many of whom represent the first generation of college graduates in their families. The connection between Rep. Lewis and the Sisters of St. Joseph also makes him a particularly appropriate speaker.”

In Selma on that Sunday in 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams set out with more than 600 peaceful protesters to demonstrate the need for voting rights in Alabama by marching to Montgomery. But as they started across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, state troopers halted them with an attack so brutal it became known as Bloody Sunday. Worldwide media coverage, including broadcasts and published photographs of the attack, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Recently, the story of the march was made famous again in the Hollywood film Selma.

Less well-known is the fact that nuns from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester treated the injured protesters at Good Samaritan Hospital, which at the time was the only hospital in Selma that would serve black Americans. The sisters helped save Lewis and many other members of the peaceful demonstration after the police attack.

The mission of the SSJs is to “work that all people may be united with God and with one another,” and helping in the civil rights movement was one way in which the SSJs of Rochester lived that mission. With a similar goal of serving social justice, the SSJs of Springfield founded the school that became Elms College, and infused that school with a focus on social justice that continues to this day.

Lewis, too, has remained committed to human rights and, despite more than 40 arrests and severe injuries from beatings during the movement, dedicated to nonviolent activism. He led the Voter Education Project to add nearly 4 million minorities to the voter rolls, among other achievements, and he has served as U.S. Representative of Georgia's Fifth Congressional District since 1986. He has received numerous awards from national and international organizations, including the highest civilian honor granted by President Barack Obama, the Medal of Freedom.

2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma, as well as the 50th anniversary of Voting Rights Act. Such milestones serve as a poignant reminder that we all have to stay committed to education and social justice, to remember how far we have come, and to keep working for social justice in all its forms.

For a full biography on Congressman John Lewis, visit our Speaker Biography page.