Civil rights leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis has spent much of his lifetime fighting for racial equality and human rights, but the 78-year-old icon stopped in Las Vegas on Sunday with a new mission to support education for the next generation.
The Georgia Democrat, who was beaten with batons, trampled by police horses and arrested 40 times during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, told the Review-Journal that a failing education system is the greatest social justice issue facing America today.
“As a nation and as a people, we are not doing enough,” Lewis said during an interview. “Many of our children are not receiving the very best possible education that they could receive.”
Lewis delivered the keynote address at a gala to support Touro University Nevada, a private institution in Henderson that offers degrees in health care and education and has about 1,400 students.
Lewis, who along with Martin Luther King Jr. was dubbed one of the “Big Six” leaders of civil rights, challenged the injustice of segregation by organizing sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters and bus terminals reserved for whites. He spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, and two years later he led more than 600 demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a march supporting equal voting rights for blacks.
It was there that Alabama police officers struck him in the head with a nightstick, nearly killing him.
‘We cannot be quiet’
During a 30-minute speech Sunday at Four Seasons, 3960 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Lewis recalled the horrifying day.
“I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die,” Lewis told the crowd of more than 500. “Fifty-three years later, I don’t know how I made it across that bridge.”
.@repjohnlewis recalls “Bloody Sunday,” the day he was beaten by an Alabama state trooper for leading peaceful protesters across a bridge from Selma to Montgomery to fight for voting rights. “I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die.” pic.twitter.com/OWH1RMKtRa
— Ramona Giwargis (@RamonaGiwargis) April 23, 2018
Lewis said someone took him to a hospital, and that he appreciates schools like Touro that train medical professionals. He called access to health care “a right, not a privilege.”
Lewis described growing up in the segregated South and being denied a library card because he is black. In 1998, he returned to the library where he’d been denied years earlier to sign copies of his memoir.
Lewis also touched on gun control, saying too many people are dying in churches, in schools and at concerts.
“We have to do something. We cannot be quiet,” he said. “We have to speak up and use our votes as a powerful nonviolent tool.”
Former Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley, the CEO and senior provost of Touro’s Western Division, said she formed a friendship with Lewis while they served in Congress.
“We kept in touch since I left Congress (in 2013), and when we decided that we were going to do a scholarship event targeting diversity students, I couldn’t think of anybody that would be more appropriate to deliver the message of unity, diversity and inclusiveness than my friend, Congressman John Lewis,” Berkley said.
‘Racism is racism’
Lewis said he doesn’t consider himself a hero.
“I consider myself an individual who was deeply inspired by the teaching and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. to do what I could to help out,” he said. “I don’t consider myself an icon, just a poor child growing up in rural Alabama who happened to be more than lucky — but blessed.”
Berkley said money raised at the gala will go toward student scholarships and that last year’s event raised more than $120,000.
Lewis said he was inspired by activist Rosa Parks, who was arrested in 1955 for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white patron. America has made progress toward equality, he said, but there is still has a long way to go.
The violence that erupted at a white nationalist rally in August in Charlottesville, Virginia, brought Lewis to tears, he said.
“There are still forces in America today trying to take us back to another time, to another place,” he said. “What I saw happening in Charlottesville made me very sad. I cried. The president said there are good people on both sides. Racism is racism. You cannot hide it. You cannot sweep it under the American rug.”
Contact Ramona Giwargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4538. Follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.