Year Up was only a few years old when Congressman John Lewis came to visit our Boston site for the first time. I can remember well where he stood in front of our class on the 5th floor of 93 Summer Street. I can hear his words as he encouraged our young adults to vote and recalled the struggles through which he and many others went to earn this right for Black Americans to participate in our democracy. His photo from that day hung in our offices for years to come. Year Up’s efforts to encourage our students to register to vote was influenced by Congressman Lewis and to this day I am proud that we continue to honor this great American by supporting our students to exercise their democratic rights. That evening, Congressman Lewis came to our home to meet with forty or so individuals who wanted to show their support for him. I learned about his “shotgun house”, I heard him talk about his memories of separate bathrooms and water fountains for white people and people of color, I listened as he spoke about his life and all that he fought for. It was the honor of a lifetime to spend time with one of our country’s civil rights leaders.
During Year Up’s many trips to Capitol Hill to advocate for Opportunity Youth, Congressman Lewis would make time to speak with our young adults. It was always inspiring to be in his presence and I have attached a photo that was forwarded to me over the weekend recalling one of those visits. It was taken in the Congressman’s office with Shannon Wroten, Year Up Greater Atlanta class one student.
A few years later Congressman Lewis returned to Boston to again speak with our young adults and we were honored to host another event at our home for him. We had copies of his book, Walking With The Wind, for those who attended the event that evening. I can still see the Congressman signing books for people and hold my own signed copy near and dear. He encouraged me, as he did with so many others, to “never give up and never give in” and to get into “good trouble”. We had asked people attending the event to bring their children as it would be a unique opportunity for them to meet a living legend. We somehow packed more than 70 people into our living room and there were about 20 children sitting cross legged on the floor in front of the Congressman. During his talk, he knelt down on one knee and explained to the children how he used to preach to chickens back in Troy, Alabama as he was practicing how to deliver an inspiring sermon. He then answered questions from the audience, and his answers influenced me to this day. Congressman Lewis told the story of the man who beat him at the Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina during the Freedom Rides. The man, Elwin Wilson, came to ask for the Congressman’s forgiveness years later in Washington. The Congressman explained how he not only forgave the man who beat him, but how they become friends in the years to follow. Congressman’s Lewis lived experience of using love to conquer hate, to practice forgiveness for those who have wronged you was something I will never forget.
Our country has lost one of our most important leaders. John Lewis fought relentlessly for racial justice for more than six decades and was this nation’s conscience on civil rights. I want to also acknowledge the loss of Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian . Reverend Vivian was one of Dr. King’s inner circle of advisors and a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. In one day, we’ve lost over a century of dedication to civil rights and racial justice. My heart, along with so many others, is heavy as we contemplate these losses, although I know that the principles and values for which John Lewis and Rev. Vivian stood will inspire and empower many others as we continue this long journey towards a more just and racially equitable nation.