Rep. John R. Lewis will deliver the commencement address May 16 at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s spring 2014 graduation exercises.
Lewis joins a distinguished list of civil rights activists who have accepted invitations to speak to UMES graduates, including former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Lewis, 74, is the lone surviving speaker among those who addressed an estimated 250,000 protesters at the August 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his signature “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
Today, Lewis enjoys a prominent role as a senior Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he has served since 1987. He is dean of Georgia’s congressional delegation.
With the nation reflecting on the 50th anniversaries of the Washington march a year ago and adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights act, Americans have been reminded of Lewis’ role on the front-lines of the movement and the difficulties that he, King and their fellow activists encountered.
Lewis was arrested some 40 times, endured physical attacks and sustained serious injuries during non-violent marches in opposition to segregation and campaigning for equal voting rights for blacks. A cameraman captured Alabama police on film in March 1965 unmercifully beating Lewis in Selma, which brought the repression that African-Americans were enduring into America’s living rooms on the TV evening news.
As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, Lewis befriended the late John A. Wilson, a firebrand contemporary from Princess Anne. Wilson led protests in the community as a Maryland State College undergraduate and like Lewis, eventually won election to public office, serving as a Washington, D.C. city council member.
Lewis is the co-author of the widely acclaimed “MARCH,’ a graphic-novel memoir of his Civil Rights-era experiences. The unique comic book-style presentation was atop the New York Times sales tracking list and has received numerous awards.
Lewis’ official congressional biography notes more than 50 of the nation’s colleges and universities have awarded him an honorary degree, including Brown, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Howard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Morehouse College, Clark-Atlanta University, Brandeis University, his alma mater, Fisk University and Troy (Ala.) State University, the historically black institution near his birthplace.
Those institutions honored Lewis in recognition of his role as a leader whose life’s work has placed him “at the vanguard of progressive social movements and the human rights struggle in the United States.”