Defying more than a dozen alumni who contacted the institution to object, LaGrange College and an overflow crowd of about 1,000 at Callaway Auditorium welcomed U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., to this west Georgia campus Thursday in the wake of the legendary civil rights leader’s controversial criticism of President Donald Trump.
Lewis had been scheduled for more than a year to be the speaker at the college’s annual celebration of the civil rights legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but his visit became much more newsworthy when he said the week before Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration that he would boycott the ceremony because he didn’t consider the billionaire businessman a legitimate president.
LaGrange mayor Jim Thornton, a LaGrange College graduate, greeted the audience and declared, “This is what college is all about. You get to hear from great leaders, great thinkers. You get to learn from their lifetime of experience, and you get to take that and reflect upon it and discuss amongst yourselves and apply that wisdom in your own life. … Colleges, and particular LaGrange College, do a great job of facilitating public discourse on important issues of our day, and this is another example of that.”
While introducing Lewis, LaGrange College President Dan McAlexander summarized the 76-year-old Georgia 5th District congressman’s civil rights history. Noting he was arrested 40 times for civil disobedience in the 1960s, McAlexander said, “In a day and age in which words come cheap and so often are not backed by actions, John Lewis’ life serves as an inspiration. He has been the very model -- literally, considering how many marches he participated in -- of walking the walk and not just talking the talk.”
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The crowd gave Lewis a standing ovation at the beginning and end of his half-hour speech.
Lewis never mentioned Trump or his boycott of the inauguration. Instead, his message – often overwhelmed by applause -- focused on urging folks, especially students, to continue King’s vision by improving their community, country and world.
Lewis, who was beaten during the “Bloody Sunday” 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala., said the same Troy, Ala., library that denied him a library card at age 16 in 1956 gave him a library card in 1998 after his book-signing there.
“When people say nothing has changed, I feel like saying, ‘Come and walk in my shoes,’” Lewis said. “… Our forefathers all came to this great land in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now. It doesn’t matter whether we’re black or white, Latino, Asian American or Native American. We’re one people. We’re one family.”
He told the diverse crowd, “Martin Luther King Jr. would be very proud of you. He would be very proud of this audience. He would be very proud of this college. You’re living out his dream. Look at you! You look good!”
Lewis emphasized that he “never, ever had a desire to hate” --even the racists who attacked him. He recalled the Ku Klax Klan member who beat him at a Rock Hill, S.C., bus stop during the 1961 Freedom Ride. Although he was left him “in a pool of blood,” Lewis declined to press charges so he could “leave in peace.”
Then, 48 years later, the Klan member was in his 70s and took his son, in his 40s, to visit the congressman in his Washington office and seek forgiveness. They shared tears and hugs, and Lewis told him, “I forgive you.”
Lewis explained to the LaGrange audience, “Hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
Now, the congressman told the crowd, “Here in the state of Georgia, here in the American South, we can serve as a model for the rest of the nation and for the rest of the world.”
In a call to action, Lewis implored, “Never give up. Never give in. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to speak up.”
As he concluded his remarks, Lewis turned to the group of students seated on the stage and beseeched them to “stay in school and receive the best possible education. One of you may be president of this college. One of you may be governor of the state of Georgia. … One of you may be a United States senator. One of you may be a great lawyer, a great teacher, a great doctor. One of you may be president of the United States.”
NBC News released on Jan. 13 excerpts of its interview with Lewis, which was televised Jan. 15 on “Meet the Press.” Lewis said on the program, “I don’t see the President-elect as a legitimate president,” referring to the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee’s computer network to help Trump, the Republican nominee, win the election.
“I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected,” Lewis told NBC. “And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. I don’t plan to attend the inauguration. It will be the first one that I miss since I’ve been in the Congress. You cannot be at home with something that you feel that is wrong, is not right.”
Trump responded via Twitter the morning of Jan. 14:
“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!”
That night, Trump added in another Twitter post, “Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S. I can use all the help I can get!”
As the nation celebrated the MLK holiday Jan. 16, the college released a statement explaining why it wouldn’t cancel Lewis’ invitation to speak. McAlexander called Lewis “a great American hero of the civil rights movement.”
“As a compatriot of Dr. King and as one who has led his life in accord with the nonviolent principles espoused by him, often at great cost to his own freedom and physical well-being, he was chosen as a most appropriate speaker for the occasion,” McAlexander said.
McAlexander noted Lewis also spoke at the college in 2006, unanimously approved by the board of trustees to be the commencement speaker.
LaGrange College hosts the Racial Trust Building Initiative, a multiracial group formed by the mayors of LaGrange, Hogansville and West Point to discuss issues that divide the community and find ways of addressing them.
“We are proud to be involved with this very important work,” McAlexander said.
The college routinely offers a wide variety of events and speakers, McAlexander said.
“Our invitations never imply institutional agreement with everything individuals might say,” McAlexander said. “Likewise, our students are accustomed to hearing from speakers who represent a wide political spectrum, and we are confident they possess the critical-thinking ability to value a lifetime of service, while perhaps disagreeing with statements of that individual.”