Civil rights hero John Lewis to deliver Commencement address

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U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an influential figure in the civil rights movement who helped organize the historic march on Washington in 1963 and has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, will be the featured speaker at Union's 219th Commencement, College officials announced today.

Approximately 483 students in the Class of 2013 will receive degrees during the ceremony, scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday, June 16, on Hull Plaza.

Lewis will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.

Calling Lewis one of his "personal heroes," College President Stephen C. Ainlay said having Lewis share his remarkable story with seniors would be inspiring.

"John Lewis is a remarkable person whose life story has been an inspiration to me and to many others," Ainlay said. "One of the most important figures in the American civil rights movement, he consistently demonstrated commitment and courage. He continues to ask us to set our sights on making the world a better place. The Class of 2013 and all of Union can rightfully feel honored that he accepted our invitation and I look forward to honoring him at this year's Commencement."

The son of sharecroppers, Lewis grew up in Alabama and attended segregated public schools. While listening to radio broadcasts of Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis found in the civil rights leader's words the commitment to human rights that would shape his life.

At Fisk University, he organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville. One of the original 13 Freedom Riders who were beaten and arrested for challenging segregation on interstate buses, Lewis helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The group was critical in mobilizing young people to stage non-violent sit-ins and other demonstrations.

At age 23, Lewis was an architect and keynote speaker for the March on Washington in August 1963, when 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. Lewis is the last surviving speaker from the march.

Perhaps Lewis's most defining moment came less than two years later, when on March 7, 1965, he helped lead hundreds in a peaceful march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. In what became known as Bloody Sunday, marchers were met by Alabama state troopers with billy clubs and tear gas. Lewis suffered a fractured skull in the violent confrontation. The televised images of marchers being beaten jolted the nation and were the catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act several months later.

Each year, students in Melinda Lawson's class, The Civil Rights Movement, are assigned to read Lewis's autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. The book is also required reading for those who participate in the Civil Rights Public History Mini-term, a nine-city, seven-state tour following the path of the movement Lawson leads each December.

Lewis's latest book is Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change.

"This is an incredibly exciting moment for Union," said Lawson, a senior lecturer in history. "John Lewis is a living testament to the courage and transformative power of the Civil Rights movement. His journey from a son of an Alabama sharecropper to a leader on the front lines of the Civil Rights struggle to a congressman who still urges America to be its best democratic self is one of the most extraordinary stories of our time.”

Lewis has represented Atlanta and several other cities in Georgia as a U.S. Congressman since 1986.

The recipient of dozens of awards and honorary degrees, Lewis was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 by Barack Obama, who praised him for his courage and commitment to social justice.