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Civil rights icon John Lewis tells USF St. Petersburg students: 'It's going to work out'

Civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis speaks with Democrat congressional candidate Charlie Crist at the University Student Center at the Universty of South Florida St. Petersburg on Wednesday. Lewis talked about this life in the Civil Rights movement and implored students to vote in the 2016 election.[EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
Civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis speaks with Democrat congressional candidate Charlie Crist at the University Student Center at the Universty of South Florida St. Petersburg on Wednesday. Lewis talked about this life in the Civil Rights movement and implored students to vote in the 2016 election.[EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published Nov. 3, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Congressman John Lewis told the crowd who came to see him Wednesday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg that they need to vote in this election.

And the civil rights legend reminded them of the price he, and many others, paid to ensure that black people can vote. In 1965, he and 600 or so planned to march the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to demand voting rights for black citizens.

They were attacked in Selma. Lewis suffered a fractured skull, he said, and was left to die in a pool of his own blood.

"I almost died on that bridge in Selma for the right to vote," he told the audience. "It's easy. So you just have to do it. Okay?"

He delivered his message amid reports that black voter turnout in the 2016 election has dropped below the levels of the two previous presidential elections. But Lewis said he believes black voters will show up in time for this Election Day.

"They've seen so much on television," Lewis said. "So much negativity. And I believe there are systemic efforts to suppress, but I think that a lot more people will turnout before Nov. 8.

"I've spent time in this state ... people know it's important. We'll be there."

USF St. Petersburg Student Body President Laraine Ruiz, 21, said it was important for the university to bring Lewis to speak to students before Tuesday's election.

"Someone like John Lewis has fought his whole life for us — for minorities and women — for the right to vote, for a right we're refusing to exercise," she said. "Students are a huge part of this election. I understand everyone's not excited (about the candidates), but that's not okay. It still affects our futures."

That observation was borne out by the crowd. The room seemed equally divided by young and old alike.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Democratic candidate in the race for the 13th Congressional District, accompanied Lewis at USF. He told students — while seeking their votes — that it was important that they turn out for this election. He recalled being governor in 2008 and watching long lines on TV. He became concerned that some wouldn't be able to cast their votes.

"I was a Republican then," he told the crowd. "We all have our crosses to bear."

He said he wondered if he had the power to do anything about it, and found out he could. He issued an executive order to extend voting hours in case of an of emergency.

"If people aren't being able to exercise their right to vote," Crist said, "that's an emergency."

Crist also warned the audience of the danger of not participating in government. He also urged them to vote against the controversial solar measure Amendment 1.

"There's a saying in politics, 'If you're not at the table, you're probably going to be on the menu,' " Crist said.

Lewis has spent 30 years in Congress and is now venturing into graphic novels. He is the author of March, a trilogy that tells the story of the Civil Rights movement and his life in it. The books are now being used in college and grade school curriculums across the country.

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He said there is much work yet to be done to protect voting rights. In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Lewis helped fight for.

"The vote is sacred, precious and powerful," he said. "...It's the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have in democracy."

He also expressed concern about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for, as Lewis put it, mocking a disabled reporter, targeting minorities and declaring that me may not accept the results of the election if he loses.

"We're one people," he said. "We all live in the same house — the American house."

He also offered a lesson for the current political climate. Forgiveness, Lewis said, he said, can help move the country forward. He told another story: One day, 40 years after he was left for dead in Selma, a man approached his congressional office. The man told Lewis he was one of the people who had beaten him up that day in 1965. The man asked for forgiveness. Lewis obliged him, and then the man started to cry.

"We need to humanize our politics, humanize our institutions," he said. "We need to be prepared to forgive."

But Lewis encouraged young voters not to be discouraged by what he called the most "shameful" election since John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960.

"Be brave," Lewis said. "Be courageous. Be bold ... don't get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful. Be optimistic. It's going to work out."

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com. Follow @divyadivyadivya

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