Lessons Learned from John Lewis

With the passing of United States Representative John Lewis last Friday, I was jolted into the following reflections: 1) that a man from very ordinary beginnings can do extraordinary things in a lifetime; 2) how I failed, until his death, to fully appreciate and understand his notable leadership contributions to the civil rights movement and 3) how much continued positive social change is still needed even with hard fought civil rights battles over the last sixty years.

In 1950, when Mr. Lewis was ten years old he experienced a very ordinary experience for an African-American in the south, he was refused a library card from the Pike County Public Library – the library was for “whites only.” This event started his civil rights career. Before he turned twenty he had met Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King and became one of the youngest leaders in the civil rights movement. On Sunday, the New York Times profiled his accomplishments (to name just a few): an original 13 Freedom Rider, founder of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, leader of the “lunch-counter” sit-ins, assisting in organizing the March on Washington, in 1965 led the March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and voting rights and registration for the African-American communities in the south. Additionally, he was active in training college students how to engage in non-violent protests.

Often times when one reads about civil rights leaders, we fail to appreciate how they prepared to engage in the struggle. Rosa Parks was “not just too tired” to move to the back of the bus, she had prepared for that day. John Lewis likewise engaged in significant learning as he developed his portfolio of civil rights leadership skills. I share these two examples to demonstrate the power of learning.

As you know the third, and for me, the most compelling pillar of our vision statement is that students will leave PVCC with the value, skills, and passion to engage in positive social change – in other words to make our communities better and solve complex social problems. Let’s not lose hope that learning continues to be a means to greater ends. Through critical, creative and entrepreneurial thinking skills developed at PVCC, our students are posed to contribute to solutions to the many vexing social problems. Just as John Lewis learned to be a civil rights leader, our students can be extraordinary. As Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of University of Maryland- Baltimore County, stated during a recent keynote speech, “We must keep reminding society how important higher education is to humankind.”