U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the keynote speaker Sunday at the 41st annual Martin Luther King Jr. Tri-county Ecumenical Service, recalled the day he was beaten when he stepped off a Greyhound bus in Rock Hill.
It was May 9, 1961. Lewis was riding from Washington, D.C., to Alabama protesting segregation. Rock Hill was his first taste of a lynch mob. He declined to press charges and continued his trip.
Fast forward to February 2009. Lewis is sitting in his office on Capitol Hill, representing Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. A man walks in and says he’s one of the guys that beat Lewis outside that bus in 1961. He wants Lewis to forgive him. The man, along with his son, and Lewis all hug and cry.
“That’s the power of love,” Lewis told more than 1,000 people at Morris Street Baptist Church Sunday.
Lewis, the son of a sharecropper, lined up with King when Lewis was a college student. He said he learned to take a stand for what’s right while resisting the urge to become bitter or hostile when people oppose you.
Lewis, now 72, was arrested and jailed 40 times. He recalled times where he was beaten so badly he thought he would die. He certainly never imagined he would be sitting on Capitol Hill.
Eventually things started to change. He recalled crying when he became a member of Congress in 1987, and crying again when Barack Obama became the first black president in 2009.
Lewis said people often ask him what King would do if he were alive, and how they can continue the struggle that King started.
“If we want to keep alive the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., it’s time for us to learn to get into trouble,” he said. “We need to make some noise. We need to speak out.”
But speak with respect and love, and make a good kind of trouble, he said.
“We need to teach our young people the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence,” he said. “Be hopeful. Be optimistic.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, introduced Lewis.
“To me, John Lewis is a saint,” Clyburn said.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called Lewis “a genuine American hero” who “helped change the world … a living reminder to us that we need to keep fighting the fight of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Lewis was one of two recipients of the annual Harvey Gantt Triumph Award. Gantt, a Charleston native, was the first black student at Clemson and later the first black mayor of Charlotte.
Donna Dewitt, former president of the South Carolina chapter of AFL-CIO, also received a Gantt award. She supported International Longshoreman Association Local 1422 members who were arrested after a conflict with a Danish shipping company over non-union labor in 2000.
Dewitt also fought against child and spousal abuse, hunger and homelessness through the S.C. Progressive Network, Emergency Labor Network, Southern Anti-Racism Network and Southern Workers Assembly, according to the program.
“She hates injustice, racism, exploitation of workers, abuse, discrimination,” Longshoreman Association President Ken Riley said in her introduction. “Where there is no justice, there is no peace.”
Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or twitter.com/dmunday.