“If anyone had told me that one day I would be standing here receiving this great honor, this great medal…as a member of Congress, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy!’” John Lewis, ninth Wallenberg Medalist, told his audience at Rackham Auditorium in January 2000.
The famed civil rights activist was recalling his hardscrabble youth in rural Alabama. One of ten children of religiously devout sharecroppers, he attended segregated schools and was once refused a library card from the Pike County library. In his talk, Lewis—whose powerful voice can be redolent of his ministerial training—recalled, “I was told by the librarian that the library was for whites and not for coloreds.”
Lewis came from a different world than did Raoul Wallenberg, the scion of Swedish aristocrats. “What are the parallels that can be drawn between these two remarkable figures?” asked University of Michigan professor emerita Irene Butter, in her introduction. “Both Congressman Lewis and Raoul Wallenberg had a strong sense of mission,” she said. “A mission that was pursued at all costs…even under seemingly hopeless circumstances.” Butter pointed out that both Wallenberg and Lewis were young men when they put their lives at risk to oppose, respectively, the evils of Hitler’s anti-Semitism and the inbred racism of America’s Deep South. Then-University of Michigan President Lee Bollinger, who followed Butter, said that during the civil rights battles Lewis “was arrested more than forty times, and was physically attacked and seriously injured on several occasions.”
One such occasion was the famous Selma march on March 7, 1965. In his lecture, Lewis recreated the terrible day that marchers set off from Selma, Alabama, to a planned protest in Montgomery, the state capital. The marchers didn’t get far. Crossing a bridge, they froze when they saw what Lewis called “a sea” of blue-helmeted, blue-uniformed Alabama state troopers. An officer with a bullhorn bellowed, “This is an unlawful march.” Then hundreds of state troopers, Lewis continued, “came toward us, beating us with their nightsticks, bullhorns, whips….” One trooper smashed a billy club against Lewis’ head. “To this day,” the Congressman said, “I don’t know how I made it back across the bridge.” On the evening after the aborted march an injured Lewis told a crowd, “I don’t know how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam, but not send troops to Selma to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote!” A week later, Lyndon Johnson made his most impassioned speech to date on the civil rights movement. And four months later, Lewis told the U-M audience, “the Voting Rights Act was passed and signed into law.”
Just twenty-five at the time of the signing, Lewis was nonetheless a veteran of the civil rights movement. As a college freshman at the all-black American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, he had not, to his parents’ dismay, concentrated on his studies. Instead, he joined a group of students organizing sit-ins at department store lunch counters closed to blacks. In 1960, he helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the catalyst for much of that era’s civil rights activism. Unlike Raoul Wallenberg, Lewis lived to see the other side of the struggle. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, as well as the Voting Rights Act, brought millions of marginalized blacks into full participation in the American system. Lewis settled in Atlanta, served on the city council, and was first elected to Congress, as a Democrat, in 1986. Today Chief Deputy Democratic Whip in the U.S. House, Lewis continues to fight for the ideals of his youth. In 1998, he successfully led opposition to a congressional amendment that would have prohibited federal funding to universities with affirmative action programs.
That same year, Lewis also won another, more personal victory. The Pike County library that shunned him as a child invited him back to do a book signing—and finally issued him a library card. “It says something,” Lewis told his audience in Ann Arbor, “about the distance we have come.”