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Getting in the Way


By Cynthia Lee

Published Apr 17, 2017 8:00 AM

Congressman John Lewis recently received the UCLA Medal for his social justice work.

Some 1300 rapt listeners in Royce Hall on April 10 heard U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a living icon of the civil rights movement, describe key moments in the long struggle for equality, as he recounted personal stories right out of American history and accepted the UCLA Medal.

In a talk interrupted frequently by thunderous applause, standing ovations and laughter from the audience, Lewis vividly recalled from his childhood the warnings his family gave him when he questioned why black children had to sit in the balcony at the movie theater and why he was denied a library card when white children weren’t.

“That’s the way it is,’ my family kept saying, ‘Don’t get in the way. Don’t make any trouble.’”

But in 1955 when he was 15, the Alabama native heard about Rosa Parks and listened to the inspirational words of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio. Through them, Lewis said, “I found a way to get in the way; I got in trouble.”

Lewis organized demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Tennessee and helped plan the historic March on Washington in 1963. He is now the only surviving speaker from that event. As a Freedom Rider, he was beaten bloody by angry mobs. In 1965, he a led protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, just before state troopers attacked the crowd. All told, he survived many beatings, incurring serious injuries, and was arrested 40 times during the civil rights era, he recalled, “and, since I entered Congress, another five times,” he added, eliciting laughter.

Today, Lewis is still very much an activist on Capitol Hill and wherever he speaks. At UCLA, he talked about the devastating cuts being made to social programs, the arts, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite all that’s happened though, he said he remains hopeful and very optimistic these troubled times shall pass.

“As students, as young people, you must use your education and training to help change America. … You have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate to speak up and speak out — and get in the way and get in trouble,” he said.

To view the original article from the UCLA Newsroom visit



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