The University Record, December 20, 1999

John Lewis to give University Wallenberg Lecture Jan. 10

By Jane R. Elgass

Lewis
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, described as “one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced,” will deliver the Ninth University Wallenberg Lecture at 7 p.m. Jan. 10 in Rackham Lecture Hall.

“John Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing personal dignity and building what he calls ‘The Beloved Community,’” says Earl Lewis, dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, who will make introductory remarks at the program. “He has displayed a sense of ethics and morality that has won him the admiration of many of his colleagues in Congress.”

The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis has been in the vanguard of progressive social movements and the human rights struggle in the United States for more than three decades.

As a student, he organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, and in 1961 participated in the Freedom Rides, organized to challenge segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South.

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, 1963–66, Lewis was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. SNCC was largely responsible for the sit-ins and other student activities.

By 1963, at age 23, he was recognized as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, joining Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer and Roy Wilkins. He helped plan and was a keynote speaker at the historic “March on Washington” in August 1963.

The following year Lewis coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” and the following year, with fellow activist Hosea Williams, led 525 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Alabama state troopers attacked the marchers in a confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” That march and another between Selma and Montgomery led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Lewis left SNCC in 1966 but remained active in civil rights work as associate director of the Field Foundation and through work in voter registration programs, going on to become director of the Voter Education Project (VEP). Under his leadership, the VEP transformed the nation’s political climate by adding nearly 4 million minorities to the voter rolls.

In 1977, Lewis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to head ACTION, the federal volunteer agency. He left ACTION in 1980 to become community affairs director of the National Consumer Co-op Bank in Atlanta.

He was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981 and resigned that post in 1986 to run for Congress. Lewis represents Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, which includes Atlanta and portions of three surrounding counties.

Lewis is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and is chief deputy Democratic whip. He serves on the Democratic Steering Committee and is co-chair of both the Congressional Urban Caucus and the Congressional Caucus on Anti-Semitism. He also is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists.

He is the immediate past chair of Americans for Democratic Action and is co-chair of the Faith and Politics Institute.

The recipient of numerous awards, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, Lewis is the co-author, with Michael D’Orso, of Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, a first-hand account of the Civil Rights Movement.

The annual University Wallenberg Lecture is supported by the University Wallenberg Endowment, which was established in 1985 to commemorate alumnus Raoul Wallenberg and “to recognize those whose own courageous actions and/or writings call to mind his extraordinary accomplishments and human values.” Income from the endowment also provides support each year for one or two graduate students whose scholarly work is related to the goals and values of the lectureship.

Wallenberg was born in Sweden in 1912, and after graduating from the then-College of Architecture in 1935 he worked as a representative for a central European trading company. Through his work he came in contact with many Jewish refugees and, in 1944, the Swedish Foreign Ministry sent him on a rescue mission to Budapest where he became a legend for his ingenuity and bravery in saving the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews.

He was last seen Jan. 17, 1945, on his way to report to Soviet Army occupation headquarters, and while Soviet officials claim he died in 1947, investigations into his whereabouts have remained inconclusive.

Previous Wallenberg Lecturers include Simha Rotem, who rescued survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto; Marion P. Pritchard, responsible, as a social work student at the time, for rescuing as many as 150 people when the Nazis invaded The Netherlands; Ambassador Per Anger, a longtime friend and colleague of Wallenberg who worked with him in Budapest; Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank and her family; His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet; Helen Suzman, long-time member of the South African Parliament who worked to instigate change in the apartheid system; Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish underground in World War II; and Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor.

The 1998–99 Wallenberg Fellows were Siddhi Vyas, who completed a master’s and education specialist degree with a focus on literacy, language and learning disabilities, and John Callewaert, who is completing his dissertation on environmental justice and ethics.