GULFPORT — Civil rights icon John Lewis urged graduates at Stetson University College of Law to put aside the quest for wealth, get off the sidelines, get in the way and get into "good trouble."
"To make our country a better place, you must do it," Lewis said Saturday. "You must make our society a better place."
Lewis, now a Democratic member of the U.S. House from Georgia, was preaching what he had practiced.
Born in Alabama the son of sharecroppers, Lewis was intimately familiar with what he called "the bitter fruit of segregation," from signs that separated whites from blacks to being refused a library card because the books were "not for coloreds, (they were) for whites only." He would ask his parents why there was segregation and racial discrimination.
He was told, "That's the way it is. Don't get in the way. Don't get in trouble."
Lewis didn't take that advice. Inspired by Rosa Parks and the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr., he joined the civil rights movement and organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., while a student at Fisk University. He joined the Freedom Rides and spoke at the March on Washington.
Then, in 1965, he and Hosea Williams led more than 600 people on a march for voting rights. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., they were beaten by state troopers in what became known as Bloody Sunday and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Parks and King "inspired me to find a way to get in the way," Lewis said. "I got in trouble. It was good trouble, necessary trouble."
Lewis said much has changed, but change is still necessary, and courage is still needed. He told the graduates that they should not wait for President Barack Obama to do it alone. They should not wait for Congress or other people. They should get off the sidelines, Lewis said, and get involved in the lives of others.
"Be not afraid," Lewis said. "Be of good and raw courage and find a way to get in the way."
Lewis received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Stetson for his lifelong advocacy of civil liberties. More than 250 law students received their degrees Saturday.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.