John Lewis touched humanity with commitment

Pauline Gehnrich, Dr. Harry Basehart, Congressman John Lewis, Dr. Fran Kane and U.S. Sen Paul Sarbanes at Lewis' appearance at Salisbury University.

Venerable Holloway Hall on Salisbury University’s campus had seen award winning theater productions, memorable musical concerts and edifying public lectures. But the most memorable at least for us was the electrifying talk in a packed auditorium given by the Honorable John Lewis on a night in March 2004.

We still get stopped around town almost 20 years later by someone who will say: “That John Lewis speech was the best I ever heard on your campus.”

The speech was indeed memorable; but the man who gave it was even more so.

Congressman Lewis certainly knew his audience. He talked humorously and eloquently of chickens and church; right in the wheelhouse of his rural Salisbury audience. They raised chickens on his family farm in Troy, Ala., and he first preached at Macedonia Baptist, after practicing on the chickens! Once he captured the audience with those stories, he added that thing about being arrested over 40 times! What unified his life was a simple belief in what he called “the Beloved Community,” a phrase from Josiah Royce that his mentor, Martin Luther King Jr. often used. And within that community an unfaltering commitment to nonviolence.

That consistency was the hallmark of the man. His marriage flourished for over forty years until his wife’s death in 2008 and he never wavered from his commitment to non-violence, even when it lost its appeal to some in the movement. Behind that deep baritone voice lay a humble and unpretentious man. The world may have called  him an icon; we only saw on that day a deeply human man who made himself available to our students in an afternoon workshop and never left the Social Room after the talk until the last person got his or her photo op with him. No braying, bloviating politician, he clearly cared for people … and justice.

He had come that night as part of our Paul Sarbanes Lecture Series, a way for the Senator to honor his hometown. When he offered to try to persuade Congressman Lewis to come, we hardly believed our ears. But there he was and hundreds of us will never forget.

At Salisbury’s Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, we had always seen voting as the key component of getting our students involved. So did John Lewis. He was working on new voting legislation when he died. And he put it as eloquently as anyone: “I have said this before, and I will say it again. The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.”

Stay restless John Lewis, even in heavenly peace.

Drs. Harry Basehart and Francis Kane are Professor Emerita at Salisbury University.