2005 Commencement Address: "Get in the Way" by Rep. John Lewis

“Get In The Way”


by Rep.  John Lewis

Maryville College

May 22, 2005

To the President of Maryville College, Dr. Gerald Gibson, to members of the board of trustees and the faculty, to all the distinguished guests, parents, family, and friends, and to the class of 2005.  I am honored and delighted to be with you on this very important occasion.  To each and every one of you receiving a degree today---- congratulations. 

I know too well the long, hard road that is now behind you. Because you have completed this assignment in your life, you now realize the value of dreaming dreams and seeing them realized. This is your day. Enjoy it. Take a deep, long breath.

And tomorrow roll up your sleeves, because the world is waiting for talented men and women to lead it to a better place.

As leaders of the 21st Century, you should keep in mind the words of Horace Mann, the Father of Modern Education in America.  He once said, “We should be ashamed to die, ashamed to leave this world, until we have made some contribution to humanity.”

So I say to you today, now is your time to make your contribution to humanity.  And now, through your leadership, you must help build an all-inclusive world community based on simple justice, an all-encompassing community that values the dignity of every individual----what I like to call the Beloved Community.

Consider those two words:  Beloved Community.  “Beloved” means not hateful, not violent, not uncaring, not unkind.  And “Community” means not separated, not polarized, not locked in struggle.

The most pressing challenge in our society today is defined by the methods we use to defend the dignity of humankind. Too often we are stuck in the trappings of a comfortable life. If you want a better society, complaining will get you, and us, nowhere.

You cannot wait for someone else to create change. You cannot wait for the government to do it.  Through your own efforts, through your own action, through your own creativity and vision, you have to do it.  You must make our society a better place. 

As a young child of the South, my early years were spent in rural Alabama.  My parents were sharecroppers.  And in my early childhood, I experienced the systematic dehumanization of African Americans in the American South.  The worst kind of oppression existed in this country just fifty years ago.

But I was also fortunate to see the birth of the modern day civil rights movement in the same South of my youth. As a young child, I tasted the bitter fruits of racism, and I didn’t like it.  I saw those signs that said “white men,” “colored men,” “white women,” “colored women,” “white waiting,” and “colored waiting.”

Just a few years ago, another generation of young students, men and women, black and white, had the courage, had the capacity, had the ability to get in the way. 

They put aside the comfort of their own lives, and they got involved in the circumstances of others.   At 23, I was a leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.   I traveled around the country encouraging people to come to Mississippi to get involved with the Freedom Summer of 1964.   41 years ago, it was almost impossible for people of color living in the South to register to vote.  

In 1964, the state of Mississippi had a population of more than 450,000 blacks, but only 18,000 were registered to vote.  In one county in Alabama—Lowndes County—80% of the residents were African American, and there was not one single African American registered to vote.     

We were young people, just like you, but we began organizing in Mississippi with one simple mission: to register as many black voters as possible. It was a great task, but our passion for equality was even greater. We knew our mission would not be without risk. 

In 1964, the state of Mississippi was a very dangerous place for those of us who believed that everyone should have the right to vote. And freedom did not come without a heavy cost. Less than a month after we arrived, three civil rights workers, three young men-----Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner—both white and Jewish, and James Chaney, a black man-----disappeared. 

Later we found out that, these three young men had been arrested, taken to jail.  That same night they were released from jail by the sheriff, and turned over to the Klan. Then they were beaten, shot and killed.

Some of you may ask why I am talking to you about something that happened 40 years ago.  I tell you so you will know that the struggle for civil rights has been a long, hard road, littered by the battered and broken bodies of countless men and women who paid the ultimate price for a precious right—the right to vote.

For those of us in the movement, we learned early that our struggle was not for a month, a season, or a year, but the struggle of a lifetime. That is what it takes to build the “Beloved Community.”

As leaders of the 21st Century, you can move our society forward by standing up for what you deeply believe. I often wonder why young people today are so quiet.   I don’t think the people of my generation would stand for what you accept today.

What ever it is that you care about—whether it is the injustice of the war in Iraq, human rights, education, the environment, better working conditions, or civil rights ----You must find your passion and make your contribution.

You must be maladjusted to the problems and conditions of today.  You must figure out a way to dramatize your issue.  And then you must find a way to get in the way.  You just have to get in the way and make your voice heard.  You cannot be spectators. You have to get off the sidelines and get in the way. 

You have an obligation, a mission and a mandate to do your part. You have a mandate from the Spirit of History to follow in the footsteps of those brave and courageous men and women who fought to make a difference.

You have a mandate from the three young men who gave their lives in the red clay of Mississippi.  Andy Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner did not die in Europe. They did not die in Asia. Or in Central America. Or in the Middle East. They died right here in the American South.  I knew these three young men. 

You must make sure that they did not die in vain. As a nation and as a people, we stand on the shoulders of these martyrs of the movement.  Now it is your turn to lead. 

It is your turn to build the Beloved Community.  This morning, you join the ranks of the new leadership.  So you must help to build a new America and a better world. 

Our society needs you. It needs your talents, your knowledge, your creativity and your passion.  Together we will help humankind to evolve to a higher level. Together we can lay down the tools and instruments of war and violence. And together we can come to the point where we study war no more.  And you must say to the world, non-violence is the more excellent way.

As you go into the world, obey the dictates of your conscience and the compass of your heart. Prepare for the long haul and for the long struggle. The journey through life is difficult, but it is more meaningful when it is fueled by a vision, a dream, a determination to make life better for someone other than yourself.  I know you will do well----- members of the Maryville Class of 2005----- but you must also do good.

This evening, let me close with a story from my childhood that I think symbolizes the commitment we must make to our principles. 


We were fifteen children walking with the wind.

My friends, the storms may come. The winds may blow. The thunder may roll. The lightning may flash.  And the rain may beat down on this old house we call America. Call it the American House. Call it the World House. But we must never, ever leave the house.

All of us must stay together and walk hand in hand.  Maybe just maybe our forefathers and foremothers all came to this land in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now. 

During the last half of the 20th century, we have come a great distance, but we still have a distance to go.

As graduates of this great institution, the world knows you are smart and talented. The world expects much from you. You have the power to lead; the power to change the social, economic and political structures around you. 

You have the power to lead a non-violent revolution of values and ideas in America and around the globe.  If you use that power, if you continue to pursue a standard of excellence in your daily lives, then a new and better world ---a Beloved Community----is yours to build.  So I say to you---Walk with the wind. And let the Spirit of Maryville College and the Spirit of History be your guide.  Thank you.

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”