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John Lewis inspired youth from Valley

The congressional website hosted by recently departed humanitarian and civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis remains active.

Near the top of the site is a press release dated July 17, the same day he died, in which the Democratic congressman from Georgia explains a letter that he and fellow Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, and other bipartisan members sent to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supporting two Center for Civic Education grant applications seeking funds “to expand the Center’s work to provide school teachers with professional development in the fields of elementary, middle and high school civics and government across the country.

“Educating America’s youth — the next generation of leaders of our country — on the principles enshrined in our Nation’s founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — is critical,” the letter said. “It is of the utmost importance to give students the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to become competent and responsible citizens guided by a reasoned commitment to the fundamental values and principles of American democracy.”

Civics and education were two issues that Lewis took up long before he sought elected office.

He argued his entire life for the rights of all Americans to participate in government and, specifically, to vote.

The consummate defender of equal rights and, specifically, voting rights for all wrote in 2013 the “right to vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy.”

This man who argued in favor of nonviolence his entire life, had been the victim of brutal violence March 7, 1965, beaten by state troopers near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, during the civil rights movement and a fight for voting rights. The incident became known as “bloody Sunday.” Lewis was at the head of hundreds of civil rights protesters who attempted to march from the Black Belt city to the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery.

For decades, teaching about the history of our nation remained a priority for Lewis. Amazingly this man continued to devote time to share first-hand his message about fights for equality or other causes for which you believe. Lewis delivered his words to many local young people, including those who traveled south from the Mahoning Valley in recent years.

Lewis made it a point to meet local students who were participating in “Sojourn to the Past” in Atlanta each year. He knew that the unique historical journey could change the lives of young people, said Penny Wells, Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past executive director. “He believed that you never give up on anybody, and that it’s always possible to change. One goal of nonviolence is to defeat injustices, not the person, so he always was willing to forgive,” Wells said.

She called Lewis a role model because he practiced the principles of nonviolence.

His message resonated with the local people who had opportunities to meet with him and who admired his strength and courage.

One local student, Lekeila Houser, who has met Lewis, recently told our reporter that his words taught her something she hopes all Americans can carry.

“He fought for every last one of us to be treated equally, and he did it nonviolently. He embodied nonviolence, and that is a huge deal,” Houser said.

Another student, Kira Walker, who also met Lewis during a Sojourn trip, said this: “His story taught me that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”

Black or white, those are words we all should embrace. And hopefully his message will continue.

Penny Wells believes it will.

“My takeaway to his legacy is to continue his work,” Wells said. “We need to speak out when we see an injustice. We need to do this following the principles of nonviolence. He believed in people working together, black and white, and that if we do this, we can accomplish anything.”

blinert@tribtoday.com

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