Rep. John Lewis, a pillar of the civil rights movement, brought 205 UC Davis law school graduates to their feet Saturday by urging them “to get into trouble” and continue the fight for justice that he, Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of other men and women started more than half a century ago.
“You are needed now more than ever. You must be headlights and not taillights,” the 76-year-old leader said, his voice reverberating throughout the Mondavi Center auditorium. “Today is your day; enjoy it. Tomorrow you must be prepared to roll up your sleeves because the world is waiting for smart, talented men and women to lead each one of us to a better place. You can do it, and you must do it!”
Raised by Alabama sharecroppers in a “shotgun house” with a dirt floor and tin roof, Lewis called the graduating class at the UC Davis School of Law heirs to a legacy that began at lunch counters, buses, department stores and polling places throughout the 11 states of the Confederacy. He said he grew up in the days when “blacks were asked the number of bubbles in a bar of soap, the number of jelly beans in a jar” to keep them from registering to vote.
“If it hadn’t been for Martin Luther King Jr., I wouldn’t be standing here today,” said Lewis, who helped King organize the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C., where he and King spoke to a crowd of 250,000. In 1986, Lewis was elected to represent Georgia’s 5th Congressional District and has held the seat ever since.
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UC Davis acting Chancellor Ralph Hexter called Lewis the “conscience of Congress” and “a genuine American hero and moral leader who commands widespread respect in the chamber.” The law school is celebrating this year the 50th anniversary of its founding.
Speaking in the cadence of a Southern preacher, Lewis warned: “There are still forces in America trying to make it harder and more difficult to participate in the democratic process. ... We had lawyers then, courageous men and women who got in the way, got in trouble. Some of the lawyers were beaten and bloodied because they were defending civil rights activists. Without lawyers and music, the movement would have been like a bird without wings.”
Lewis sustained a fractured skull from an Alabama state trooper’s billy club when, as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he led 600 people on a voting rights march across a bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, on what has come to be known as Bloody Sunday. “I gave a little blood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. ... I thought I was going to die,” he said. “But somehow and some way a group of lawyers wrote the Voting Rights Act. Congress passed it, and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law.”
Even before he joined the movement, Lewis recalled asking his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and teachers why different signs were posted for white and “colored” bathrooms, restaurants and other facilities. “They would say, ‘That’s the way it is, don’t get in the way, don’t get into trouble,’ ” he said.
“But individuals like Rosa Parks, King and so many others inspired me to get intro trouble ... good trouble, necessary trouble,” Lewis said. “As young lawyers you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate to get in trouble. ... When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you must stand up, speak up and speak out! Use the law!”
Lewis acknowledged the graduates from China, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the audience and declared, waving his hand for emphasis, “All around the world we have a right to know what is in the food we eat, what is in the water we drink, what is in the air we breathe.”
Oscar Orozco-Botello, a graduate from San Diego, called Lewis’ speech “a motivating, powerful, beautiful call to action. As leaders of our communities, it’s recommended that every attorney spend at least 50 hours a year doing pro bono work.”
In an interview with The Sacramento Bee, Lewis brought the conversation to present-day politics, saying he was supporting Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton while adding that Bernie Sanders “has a good heart.” She said Clinton “has been down this road” in the struggle for equal justice.
“I think she’s better prepared to lead not just in America but the world,” Lewis said.