By Denise Dick
Before Tuesday, East High School senior Briasia Leggette, 17, didn’t know anything about U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil-rights leader.
“I’m just sitting here and listening, and I feel like I do know him,” Briasia said. “He did powerful things for all of us. I was amazed.”
Lewis, 71, a Georgia Democrat, spoke Tuesday morning to students from East, Youngstown Early College and the Chaney Campus about his life and experiences in the civil-rights movement.
His appearance was at the invitation of students from Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past. Sojourn students spend 10 days traveling by bus through the South, visiting sites from the civil-rights movement and meeting some of those who lived through it.
The students organized Nonviolence Week in the city, observed annually the first week in October.
Lewis is a student of nonviolence as well.
“The way of nonviolence is a better way,” he said.
Lewis, a native of rural Troy, Ala., is the son of a sharecropper and in 1961, he became one of 13 Freedom Riders, riding buses to integrate the public transit system.
He participated in sit-ins and sat at lunch counters where people poured hot coffee on him, beat him and put lit cigarettes down his back. But Lewis and the other peaceful protesters remained nonviolent.
When Lewis was denied admission to Troy College because he’s black, Lewis wrote a letter to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., asking for assistance. The Rev. Dr. King sent Lewis a bus ticket, inviting him to meet in Montgomery, Ala.
In 1963, at 23, Lewis became chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and was one of the planners of the March on Washington when Dr. King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech.
In 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams, another activist, led more than 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
“At the other end of the bridge, we saw a sea of blue,” Lewis said. “It was Alabama State Troopers with the sheriff’s posse behind them on horse back.”
The sheriff announced that the march was unlawful and ordered marchers to disperse within three minutes. When the marchers stopped to pray, the troopers advanced with night sticks, bullwhips and tear gas.
The event would become known as Bloody Sunday. Lewis was struck in the head by a trooper with a night stick, felt his legs go out from under him and thought that would be his last protest, he told students.
He survived with a fractured skull, and before going to the hospital he called on President Lyndon B. Johnson to intervene in Alabama.
That same year President Johnson delivered a speech to the country, condemning the violence in Alabama. In 1964, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
“Without jail and beatings, there would be no Barack Obama as president of the United States today,” Lewis said. Some of those who beat him as a young man have apologized in recent years, he said.
“Keep the faith, and never give up,” he told students. “Hold onto your dreams.”
Despite all of the progress made by minorities since the 1960s, Lewis said the work isn’t done.
“When I’m asked if the election of Barack Obama is the fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream, I say, ‘No. It’s a down payment,’” he said. “There’s still work to do.”