On May 3, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies recognized U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) with the 2011 Louis E. Martin Great American Award. The Joint Center’s highest honor was given to Lewis for his decades of service as an advocate of civil and human rights and for strengthening the American community.

Lewis received the award at the Joint Center’s annual Gala Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C. The event drew more than 500 people including government officials, members of Congress and business, civic and community pioneers from across the nation.

For more than 50 years, the group noted, Lewis has been a pioneering community and political leader and civil rights advocate.

The presentation was given on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the day the first Freedom Riders left Washington by bus on a trip to the south to exercise their right to interstate travel and to fight laws that enforced segregation. Lewis was among the first riders and was severely beaten during the event.

“Congressman Lewis continues to lead by his example, working for racial harmony and inspiring all Americans to make the most of their right to engage in the process of shaping our nation’s future,” Joint Center President and CEO Ralph B. Everett said at the event, according to a press release.

Lewis reflected on the turbulent events at the gala, and said that the first violent encounter occurred in Rock Hill, S.C., where he and his cohorts attempted to enter a bus station waiting room that was reserved for Whites. But he explained that one of the men who beat him came to his office and apologized to him two years ago. Lewis added that while times have definitely changed, America still has work to do.

“Some people ask me these days whether the election of President Obama is the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream,” the congressman said at the event, according to a press release. “I’m quick to say ‘no.’ It’s just a major down payment. There are still too many people in America that are left behind.”

The award, named after celebrated journalist, presidential advisor and co-founder of the Joint Center Louis E. Martin, is given to individuals who epitomize King’s dream for justice, compassion and racial unification.

Past recipients of the award include former presidents Jimmy Carter and William J. Clinton, Muhammad Ali, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and civil rights icon Dr. Dorothy I. Height.

Founded in 1970, the Joint Center is one of the nation’s leading research and public policy institutions and the sole one whose work focuses on African Americans and other people of color.