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Voting rights activist John Lewis urges students to fight for justice

LOS ANGELES – Voting rights legend U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a longtime student and devotee of civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke to a packed house at Cal State L.A. Jan. 23, telling students to always fight for what they believe in and to never give up their dreams.

“When you see something that is not right, fair or just, you have to speak up,” Lewis told a crowd that had filled the theatre to hear the longtime activist speak about a pivotal chapter in U.S. history.

In a similar event in downtown Los Angeles, Lewis spoke to more than 1,000 community activists, labor leaders and civic officials, telling the harrowing tale of a 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Alabama where marchers were attacked so viciously by state police that the confrontation became infamously known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Television footage from the police attacks was streamed into living rooms throughout the U.S., horrifying millions of Americans and sparking the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are widely seen as the crowning achievements of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Speaking at the Martin Luther King labor breakfast hosted by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Lewis urged students to always be fighting and never give up. No matter the odds, he said, “continue to stand up, continue to speak out, continue to agitate.”

Lewis, a Georgia congressman since 1986, joined the movement as a student at Fisk University, where he organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville. He later became a leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, when he and thousands of other students fought to register black people to vote.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, left, talks about the civil rights movement during his visit to Cal State L.A. Jan. 23. With him is U.S. Rep. Xavier Beccera, D-Los Angeles. (Photo by J. Emilio Flores/Cal State L.A.)
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, left, talks about the civil rights movement during his visit to Cal State L.A. Jan. 23. With him is U.S. Rep. Xavier Beccera, D-Los Angeles. (Photo by J. Emilio Flores/Cal State L.A.)

The son of sharecroppers, Lewis recalled growing up in the Jim Crow South and picking cotton as a child in Alabama. As a student, he said, he loved reading but was unable to get a library card because he was black.

But he read newspapers and learned about Rosa Parks and the struggle for equality through non-violent protest. “The actions of Rosa Parks and the words and leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired me,” he said.

As Lewis spoke, people in the audience listened, rapt. They included Cal State L.A. students, community leaders, high school students from U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra’s 34th Congressional District and officials such as Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Michelle King and Los Angeles Community College District Chancellor Francisco Rodriguez.

The event was sponsored by Becerra, Cal State L.A. President William A. Covino, and the University’s Department of Pan-African Studies and Black Student Union.

“The sacrifices of courageous men and women like Congressman Lewis fundamentally altered the course of this nation’s history,” Covino told the audience. “They put their lives on the line for a principled and just cause, and today we all reap the benefits of living in a nation that is more fair and equitable because of their struggle.”

Becerra credited Lewis for working to bring Latinos and African Americans together to battle for common goals, including justice for immigrants.

“Comprehensive immigration reform is needed, is a must. There is no such thing as an illegal human being,” Lewis said to spirited applause.

Aminah Bakeer Abdul-Jabbaar, a filmmaker who teaches in the Pan-African Studies Department, said that seeing Lewis on stage made her feel proud to be part of the Cal State L.A. community.

“This is a good step for us as a university to take,” she said. “It shows that we value our history, African American history, the civil rights movement. This is huge.”