John Lewis’s death on July 17 marked the passing of a great American and a good friend to Emory. He was our representative in Congress and a frequent visitor to campus, where he delivered the Commencement address in 2014 and the Oxford Commencement address in 2019. An endowed chair in the law school honors him.
His leaving us prompted me to dig out the citation I wrote when he received the Emory President’s Medal in 1999. Unthinkingly, I had scheduled his speech and the award ceremony for the first Sunday afternoon in February, the beginning of Founders Week at Emory–oops, also Super Bowl Sunday! Happily, the program was scheduled before the big game, and Glenn Memorial filled with an audience eager to hear this American hero.
The reference to his “cooped-up compassion” was an inside joke for him, who recounts in his autobiography, “Walking with the Wind,” that he used to preach to the family chickens in the hen house when he was a child.
John Robert Lewis
Son of Alabama, Midwife of a Revolution, Walker with the Wind:
Thank God for the adamantine hardness of your head,
upon whose fractured skull broke waves of arrogance—
arrogance that saw its doom in the patient marching,
the willing endurance
of those who did not have enough
but by God had surely had enough.
Thank God for the caged-bird heart of you,
in whom childhood’s cooped-up compassion grew large
to embrace the one wielding a weapon against you
as well as the beaten-down.
Thank God for those sturdy feet
that walked the fifty-four miles from Selma to Montgomery
and trod the floors of Woolworth’s and W. T. Grant and Kress
in search of lunch-counter hospitality—
those feet that know the halls of Congress
and remember the furrows of a sharecropper’s cotton field.
Thank God for the ears that listen for the Spirit of History,
the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.
Built for the long haul, built for holding on to truth,
you clasp to you the moral outrage bursting from your soul
but also the hope that infuses the weak with strength,
with power as a mighty river of truth.
Make it clear, John Robert Lewis:
You have had your rides in paddy wagons,
those freedom chariots.
You have had your forty arrests,
your forty years in the wilderness,
your forty days and nights on the mountain
in a drama of good and evil, no less.
We do not come to sanctify you today, however;
we will not make of you a stained-glass saint.
Our day, no less than a generation ago, requires
that ALL be mobilizers,
that ALL clarify blurred vision,
that ALL reject self-interest and seek the common good.
Our day requires the principles of nonviolence and democracy.
Our day requires that decency rise above difference,
honesty above pride,
and conscience above the world’s beguilement.
By this award we pledge not adulation but common cause
in the effort to live as the Beloved Community
on a scale that encompasses all.
Humbly acknowledging the humility that motivated you,
we bestow on you the Emory President’s Medal.