The University Record, January 17, 2000

Inspiration of Wallenberg’s life needed to fight racism, Lewis says

By Joel Seguine
News and Information Services

Racism is a burden Americans are in the process of laying down, “but we aren’t done yet. We must continue down that road.” So said John Lewis, civil rights pioneer, U.S. Congressman from Georgia and now recipient of the Ninth University Wallenberg Medal, to a rapt audience in Rackham Auditorium, Jan. 10. The medal and lectureship are named in honor of Raoul Wallenberg, a 1935 U-M alumnus who almost single-handedly saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust.

“The characters of these men were shaped in similar ways, despite their having come from very different backgrounds,” said Irene Butter, professor emerita of public health policy and administration and member of the Wallenberg Selection Committee. She cited many parallels between Lewis, who grew up poor in segregated Alabama, and Wallenberg, from a prominent Swedish family in Stockholm.

According to Butter, both men defied the tyranny of racism, showed deep fortitude and boundless energy in total commitment to their missions, extraordinary courage in the face of personal danger and steadfastness through the most difficult of circumstances. Wallenberg was last seen on his way to being arrested by the Soviet Army Jan. 17, 1945.

Lewis told his audience that now, more than ever, we need to be inspired by the life of Wallenberg as the fight against racism continues.

Lewis recounted his early life in a family of 10 children on his father’s 110-acre farm in rural Alabama. Growing up, “I tasted the fruits of racism. For instance, I was turned away from our county public library at the age of 10 when I went to get a library card and take out a book.” As a child, he saw the signs marking separate public facilities for “whites” and “colored.”

After attending segregated schools, which endured in Alabama despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision eliminating school segregation in 1954, Lewis earned degrees from both the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University in Nashville. It was there he became “deeply moved by the non-violent approach of the Montgomery bus boycott.” As a result, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters in Nashville. “We literally put our bodies on the line. People put cigarettes out in our hair, poured hot coffee down our backs,” he said.

From lunch-counter sit-ins, Lewis went on to co-found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and served as chairman in 1963–66, during the height of the civil rights movement. In 1961 he participated in the Freedom Rides, organized to challenge segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South, and later became dedicated to voter registration for African Americans who had been required to pass literacy tests in order to vote. “It was impossible for those people to vote,” he said.

Lewis was arrested some 40 times. In one episode Montgomery, Ala., Sheriff “Bull” Connor “kidnapped a group of us and dropped us off in Klan territory,” he said.

Lewis was injured several times, including on the day in 1965 that became known as “Bloody Sunday,” when Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams, leading the first attempt at a march from Selma to Montgomery, were attacked by Alabama State Troopers.

“They blocked us at the bottom of the Petus Bridge. I was hit on the head and got a concussion. I couldn’t understand why President Johnson could send troops to Vietnam, but none to protect us in Selma,” Lewis said. “But our struggle did eventually touch the President and lead to enactment of the federal civil rights laws that have created a non-violent revolution in this country. Non-violence cannot be selectively applied. It must be a way of life, otherwise you have to choose when to love and hate. Love is a better way,” Lewis concluded.