On Saturday, July 18, I woke up to the news of the passing of Civil Rights Icon, the Honorable Congressman John Lewis. Over the course of the morning, I would share text messages with Cindy Lyons, Chair of the Elms Board of Trustees, and many other members of the Elms College community, recalling one very historic Elms moment.
On May 19 2015, Congressman Lewis was invited by my predecessor, Sr. Mary Reap, to be the Commencement Speaker. He delivered one of the most memorable Commencement speeches in Elms College’s history. Midway through his address, Congressman Lewis crossed the MassMutual Center stage in a very moving gesture to hug Sr. Maxyne Schneider, President of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. He had just finished telling the story of how the Sisters of St. Joseph cared for him and saved his life when he was beaten and left for dead during one of the Civil Rights marches.
Congressman Lewis’ Commencement speech was full of this paradoxical combination that made his life, and that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., so remarkable: steely resolve and magnanimous love. He and Dr. King would not bend or flinch in their demand to be treated as equal human beings and nothing less. Yet, they were not overcome by the hate that was projected onto them by their oppressors. In recounting the inhuman treatments that he and other protestors received at the hands of law enforcement, he told the Elms College Class of 2015: “We didn’t become bitter. We didn’t hate. We kept the faith.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meachum, whose next book will examine the life of Congressman John Lewis, was asked during a television interview to speak about what is most remarkable about John Lewis. He said that John Lewis’ life is not understandable if you separate him from his faith. “His life was a sermon,” Meachum said. The young man who wanted to be a preacher would be a Civil Rights activist and become the moral conscience of a nation. Meachum said that John Lewis believed that if we open our hearts and heed the Scripture’s command to love our neighbor, that love would liberate us. And that is how he lived his life.
I had the opportunity to meet Congressman Lewis twice in recent years: in October 2016, when he visited Saint Anselm College, and in February 2019 during a trip of university leaders to Capitol Hill organized by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. In both instances, I was overwhelmed by the kindness and humility of this living legend.
John Lewis fought more than one good fight. He had the wounds in his body and his skull to prove it. He saw progress in his lifetime, as he told the Elms graduating class of 2015. Every heroic soldier deserves a good rest. Congressman Lewis and Reverend C. T. Vivian, another Civil Rights Icon passing almost at the same time, both deserve to rest in peace. So, why are we so shaken by their demise?
We are less sad for them than we are for us. It seems that for all they have done in the sixties and the decades that followed, the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the many others, have brought us back full circle. It seems that for all the gains that they have made, today in 2020, the right to vote is nothing to be taken for granted. Their physical presence on this earth was a reminder of the history that we should not forget.
We are also sad for the young people today who will not get to know Congressman Lewis and the next graduating classes who will not get to hear his advice. Much has been said recently about colleges indoctrinating young people. A college education is first and foremost about getting students to think critically for themselves. But, in so doing, colleges have a duty to showcase clear examples of pure goodness as well as those of clear evil.
Congressman John Lewis was an easy example of the former. We have an obligation to make sure that generations of students hear his advice to “be bold, brave, and courageous” and to “get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”