Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) still stands as an iconic beacon of the civil rights movement in the 21st Century.

“John Lewis is so popular and in such demand that he is unable to join us this evening. But he was able to send us a film. John is like manure . . . He’s all over the place,” said Ernest “Rip” Patton, a fellow Freedom Rider from the 1960s, who let the imagery rip as his down-home, southernstyle quip drew a hearty laugh from 500 attendees at the second annual Newseum Free Expression Awards gala at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on April 18. Lewis, 77, became the first recipient of the Free Expression Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ernest “Rip” Patton, a fellow Freedom Rider with Rep. John Lewis presented the representative with an award on April 18. (Photo by Gregory Clay)

The purpose of the Free Expression Awards is to recognize those who “embody the Newseum’s mission to promote, explain, and defend free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment.”

While Lewis couldn’t attend the dinner gala because of a prior commitment he accepted his award via big-screen video. “We live in an unbelievable country. (Our) rights are protected by the Constitution. You have a right to stand up, a right to sit down. A right to do right,” he said in the video.“As Dr. King would say, ‘The time is always right to do right.’ So, as long as I have breath in my body, I will continue to stand up and speak for the freedoms that are guaranteed and protected by the Constitution.”

In addition to Lewis, religious liberty advocate Kristina Arriaga accepted the award for religious freedom; Playboy magazine publishers Hugh Hefner and Christie Hefner jointly received the arts and entertainment award; Apple CEO Tim Cook garnered the free speech award; and ABC News global correspondent Martha Raddatz accepted the free press award. Highlights of each award recipient’s accomplishments were displayed during two-minute video tributes.

“I love being reminded of everything that John Lewis did, from the 1960s to now,” Raddatz told the AFRO.

Patton doesn’t need reminders of Lewis’ feats. In addition to being Lewis’ presenter on awards night, Patton was also Lewis’ seatmate on the Greyhound bus from Montgomery, Ala., to Jackson, Miss. during the Freedom Rides in 1961, an effort to challenge the non-enforcement of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions — one in 1946 and the second in 1960 — that ruled segregated, state-to-state bus service unconstitutional.

In 1961, Lewis was a 21-year-old religion major at the American Baptist Theological Seminary, a small, HBCU in Nashville, Tenn. and Patton was a 21-year-old music student at Tennessee A&I, an HBCU now known as Tennessee State.

The Riders often faced down angry White mobs at bus terminals in southern cities, as they drew upon civil disobedience and nonviolence training in protesting for civil rights and due process. Sometimes, the Freedom Riders were beaten. In fact, one of the buses in the Freedom Riders’ caravan into the Deep South was firebombed on Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961, in Anniston, Ala. Despite the dangers, those dozens of Freedom Riders — led by Lewis — proclaimed, “There’s No Stopping Us Now.”

Nowadays, Patton harkens back to 1961 and the Civil Rights Movement when asked to identify the key issue facing the United States in 2017.

“Race relations is the single biggest problem right now,” Patton told the AFRO on the red carpet before the gala. “If we are working together, we can make things better. During the Movement, we did things to make things better for the generations behind us. But we still have a long way to go.

“Love your neighbor as yourself. And know they have problems just like you do. Solve problems together. And vote,” he said. Patton also said that healthcare was the second issue in the country.

Lewis has been focused on both issues since he became a congressman from Georgia, serving since Jan. 3, 1987.

Lewis said he grew up in humble beginnings in Troy, Ala., as a poor farm kid who raised chickens that he preached the gospel to as if they were a stand-in congregation.

Perhaps Newseum president and CEO Jeffrey Herbst put it best when he spoke briefly of each honoree’s enormous impact on the larger society as he opened the $500-a-plate gala from the podium.

“He risked his very life for the civil rights of all Americans,” Herbst said.

Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the youngest orator, at 23, for the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. After the iconic March, Lewis met then-President John F. Kennedy at the White House. Lewis is also the lone survivor of that day’s key speakers, led by Rev. Martin Luther King. Lewis’ accolades also include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2011.

On March 7, 1965, Lewis was set to lead about 600 marchers from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, the state capital, to champion voting rights for Black folk, especially in the South. But the marchers were ordered to disperse by Alabama state troopers, who proceeded to beat them. Lewis suffered a skull fracture.

“That’s why he wore that patch on his head so much,” explained Patton.

The day would forever live in infamy, as a horrified nation watched the video on newscasts that night. It was called “Bloody Sunday.”

Lewis, who two years later earned a degree in philosophy from Fisk University, survived that Sunday bloodied but unbowed.

“It’s an honor tonight to be recognized alongside of John Lewis, who I am very proud to call my friend. John has been an inspiration and a role model for me. He has truly set the standard for moral, physical, and political courage,” Cook said as he began his award acceptance speech on the dais.

The Newseum made Lewis’ historical account available to all attendees in a free goodie bag featuring “MARCH,” a comicbook-like, illustrated trilogy chronicling the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Lewis’ book received critical acclaim in 2016, as he became the first author of a graphic novel to win the coveted National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Lewis’ mantra: “We should dramatize the issue.”

As part of that mantra, Lewis led a surprise sit-in of 170 Democratic lawmakers in the Summer of 2016. The lawmakers protested a lack of action in their call to beef up gun control following a horrific massacre that left 49 dead in an Orlando gay nightclub in June of 2016.

During a speech at the Newseum in December 2016, Lewis said he wrote a letter in 1957 to King — whom Lewis followed on radio broadcasts during his teenage years — as part of his effort to attend Troy State College, which apparently had ignored his enrollment application. Troy State College was a predominantly White school in Lewis’ hometown of Troy, Ala.; the campus was only 10 miles from his parents’ residence.

King eventually wrote Lewis back, a letter that included a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket to Montgomery, Ala., 50 miles away. King suggested a college spring-break meeting. So, in the spring of 1958, an 18-yearold Lewis met King for the first time and his top lieutenant Ralph Abernathy at Abernathy’s church.

Lewis said King asked him: “Are you the boy from Troy?” Lewis said he responded at the time, “I am John Robert Lewis.

“After that, Dr. King always called me the ‘boy from Troy,’’’ he said.

Lewis ultimately decided to abandon his quest to transfer to Troy State College because his parents feared for his life during a time of staunch segregation at White colleges in the South.

However, an awestruck Lewis remained optimistic after meeting King. “He inspired me to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement,” he said.