HAMPTON, Va. (July 18, 2020) – Hampton University president, Dr. William R. Harvey and the entire Hampton University community are mourning the loss of a powerful champion of human rights who gave voice to the needs of those whose voices were stifled if not silenced, through oppression and disenfranchisement. Congressman Lewis passed away on Friday after a six-month battle with cancer. He was 80.
“To know him was to appreciate his life’s poignant example of moral courage and moral clarity,” said Dr. William R. Harvey who had the privilege of knowing this stalwart soldier during the deepest days of the civil rights movement.
“John Lewis was an American hero who happened to be Black. I have known him since I was an undergraduate at Talladega College when he, at the time was studying at Fisk University. He was fearless and one of the bravest men that I have ever known,” said, Dr. Harvey. “John was the type of individual who had personal and respectful relationships with many individuals, including those with whom he may have disagreed.”
Dr. Harvey also had the privilege of knowing his late wife, Lillian. “John and Lillian visited my home in Brewton, Alabama with my mother and my sister. In honor of John’s memory, I have ordered the flags at Hampton University to be lowered to half-staff,” Dr. Harvey said.
The relationship between Dr. Harvey and Congressman Lewis continued for many years and ushered in one of the most celebrated commencement addresses at Hampton University in 2015. Lewis served as Hampton University’s 145th Annual Commencement Keynote Speaker. He told the 847 graduates that it was their moral obligation to do what they can to bring about positive change in the world.
"You have to find a way to get in the way. Get in good trouble. Use it to bring about a non-violent revolution,” Lewis said. He dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties and building what he called “The Beloved Community in America.”
During that ceremony, Dr. Harvey conferred an Honorary Degree Doctor of Laws on Lewis.
Born the son of sharecroppers on February 21, 1940, outside of Troy, Alabama, Lewis grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. As a young boy, he was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. During those pivotal moments, he decided to become part of the Civil Rights Movement.
When Lewis attended Fisk University, he organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters and in 1961, he volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. He risked his life on those Rides by simply sitting in seats reserved for white patrons. He was also beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South.
At the age of 23, he was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activities, including sit-ins and other activities. He later served as director of the Voter Education Project, helping to register millions to vote. In 1977, Lewis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of the federal volunteer agency ACTION.
In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. While serving on the Council, he was an advocate for ethics in government and neighborhood preservation. He was elected to Congress in November 1986 and served as U.S. Representative of Georgia's Fifth Congressional District since then. He was known during this time as the “Conscience of the Congress.”
Lewis announced last year that he had Stage-4 pancreatic cancer. His wife, Lillian Miles, whom he met at a New Year’s Eve party and married in 1968, died in 2012. He is survived by his son, John-Miles.
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