Congressman John Lewis

2005 Choral Arts Humanitarian Award Recipient

Transcript from Congressman John Lewis’s speech at the 17th Annual Choral Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Sunday, January 9, 2005 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.


Thank you very much. First of all, I want to thank the Choral Arts Society of Washington for giving me the opportunity and the honor of presenting this award. It means a great deal to me to present an award, and I’m sure to you too, in the name and in tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I first met Dr. King when he was 15-years-old. He was a gifted student and had come to Morehouse College, of course, ahead of time. Ten years later, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, he became our leader. Your leader, my leader, a world leader.

Tonight I have the privilege of presenting an award to John Lewis, who I met when he was just 22, and he was chairing the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. And tonight I present this award to him in his 9th term as a member of the United States Congress. And I do so with great appreciation. And with real understanding of what it means to have someone who has come through – and we worked through so many years of the civil rights movement – but I could say of Congressman Lewis, I have to say to you, you have made a real record with your capacity for caring and your commitment and your courage, and I’m honored to present this award to you.

The Choral Society of Washington is proud to present to Congressman John Lewis our second Humanitarian Award as a part of the 17th annual choral tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Described as one of the most courageous persons that the civil rights movement ever produced, John Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing personal dignity, and building what he calls the beloved community. His sense of ethics and morality are one that has won him the admiration of his colleagues at the United States Congress.

Lewis was born a son of sharecroppers on February 21, 1940 outside of Troy, Alabama. He grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University, and he’s a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville.

He has numerous honorary degrees from colleges and universities across the United States, such as Brandeis, Columbia University, Fisk University, Morehouse College, Princeton University, and Williams College. John Lewis is a recipient of numerous awards, including the prestigious Martin Luther King Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize and the NAACP Spingarn Medal. He’s a recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement under the National Education Association.

At an early age, Lewis developed an unwavering commitment to the civil rights movement. For more than 40 years, he’s been in the vanguard of progressive social movements and the human rights struggles in the United States. As a student, John Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1961, Lewis volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which were organized to challenge segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. He risked his life and was beaten severely by mobs for participating in the Freedom Rides.

During the height of the civil rights movement of 1963 to 66, Lewis was the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which he helped to organize. SNCC, as it was called, was largely responsible for the sit-ins and other activities of students in the struggle for civil rights. Despite his youth, Lewis became a recognized leader of the civil rights movement. By 1963, he was one of the big six leaders of the civil rights movement. The other big six leaders were Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, and I was the woman member. I guess I’m number seven.

Lewis, at the age of 23, was one of the planners and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington. Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks, serious injuries, Lewis remained a devoted advocate for the philosophy of nonviolence. After leaving SNCC in 1966, he remained active in the civil rights movement through his work as Associate Director of the Field Foundation and his participation in the Southern Regional Council’s voter registration program. Lewis went on to become the director of the Voter Education Project, and this transformed the nation’s political climate by adding nearly 4 million minorities to the rolls. Elected to Congress in November, 1986, Lewis represents Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, which encompasses the entire city of Atlanta and parts of Fulton, Dekalb and Clayton counties. In 1996 he ran unopposed in his bid for a sixth term, and is currently serving his ninth term in office. Congressman Lewis serves on the influential Democratic Steering Committee, and is also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists. Additionally, Lewis serves as co-chair of the Faith and Politics Committee. His wife, Lillian, serves as Director of External Affairs at the Office of Research Sponsored Programs at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia, and they have one son. And it is my pleasure to present this award to you, my friend, my Congressman, John Lewis.


Thank you very much. Thank you so much, Dorothy Height, for those kind and beautiful words. Thank you for never giving up, for never giving in. Thank you for keeping the faith. Thank you for being you.

I want to thank the Choral Arts Society of Washington for this great honor. Listening to the beautiful music tonight reminded me of another period in our history. You took me back.

When I was 15 years old in 1955, in the 10th grade, growing up in rural Alabama, I heard Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on an old radio. And the words of Martin Luther King Jr. inspired me. When I would visit a little town of Troy or Montgomery or Tuskegee, and I’d see those signs that said white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting, colored waiting, I would come home and ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents: why segregation, why racial discrimination? And they would say, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble.” But Martin Luther King Jr.–who loved music–inspired me to find a way to get in the way. And I got in the way.

Oh friends, even before we would be arrested in this city in 1960, but during the Freedom Rides or during the marches, we were singing at Mass meeting some of the great hymns, some of the great songs. If it hadn’t been for music, oh, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings. Music created a sense of solidarity and gave us the courage, the inspiration, to go on, to keep pushing. And we kept pushing, and because of music. I remember Dorothy Height on one occasion, we were walking from Selma to Montgomery, on that march from Selma to Montgomery. One young man just made up a little tune, “pick them up, lay ‘em down, all the way from Selma town.” And we made it. So let me thank you again for this Humanitarian Award. Hang in there, keep the faith, and keep your eyes on the prize.