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John Lewis: Experiencing an Icon

On Friday, Sept. 21, at the San Diego Civic Theatre in Downtown, more than 2,000 people gathered in the velvet, red seats of one of the city’s largest performance halls. The Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir greeted guests with a performance of “We Shall Overcome” as people chatted excitedly, waiting to hear the last remaining activist who comprised the Big Six of the civil rights movement.

Congressman John Lewis, the author, and creator of the graphic novel “March,” along with co-author Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell, had been invited to speak about civil rights, their own personal journeys and the significance of the novel as part of this year’s One Book One San Diego initiative.

After a lengthy introduction, Lewis, Aydin and Powell were welcomed to the stage with a deafening roar of applause from the standing crowd. Lewis, a short, unassuming man, was the first to take center stage. As he paced back and forth, he began to tell the story of his life, starting with his childhood on his family’s farm in the rural town of Troy, Alabama, where his passion for civil rights first started to take form.

“Growing up in Troy, I saw the signs that said ‘White Men,’ ‘Colored Men,’ ‘White Women,’ ‘Colored Women,’ and I began to ask myself ‘why?’” Lewis said. “My mom would tell me to mind my business and stay out of it, but that wasn’t an option in my mind.”

Lewis went on to detail his entrance into nonviolent activism for civil rights, which started when he was just 15 years old.

“In 1955, when I was in 10th grade, I heard of a woman named Rosa Parks and I heard of a man named Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Lewis. “The actions of Rosa Parks and the words and leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. inspired me to find a way to get in the way.”

It was with this mentality that Lewis went on to make history with bus boycotts, the desegregation of lunch counters and the “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma to Montgomery, which left 58 people injured by state troopers.

“People like John Lewis, who played a firsthand role in creating real change for people of color, specifically black individuals, need to be listened to,” said PLNU senior Kirra Ziehl, who attended the event. “In a time where negativity and hate have a huge platform, voices that promote inclusive ideals need to be amplified.”

Highlighting his experiences working alongside Dr. King and other civil rights leaders, Lewis emphasized the need for nonviolence. Even when he was mocked, beaten and jailed multiple times in his fight for civil rights, Lewis never strayed from his belief in nonviolent action, and ultimately he saw the change that made it all worth it.

“Through a nonviolent revolution, we can stir up good trouble, necessary trouble,” said Lewis. “We must lay down the burden of race and class. We are one people; we are one family. We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way.”

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Tigist Layne

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