John Lewis marches on

John Lewis (front right). Photo via Library of Congress

A young John Robert Lewis didn’t know he was about to be attacked.

That day, March 7, 1965, Lewis and other peaceful protestors marched for equality across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

Later, this day would be known as “Bloody Sunday.” It would help pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But in this moment, he was suddenly struck by state troopers in the haze of tear gas. Lewis was hit with a nightstick and his skull was fractured. He was beaten within inches of losing his life.

“I thought I saw death,” Lewis remembers.

But he survived. The civil rights leader turns 76 years old on February 21, and he continues to march for justice as a congressman, author and speaker.

In 2014, Lewis visited Marquette University to welcome the Marquette University class of 2018 at New Student Convocation, where he received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in recognition of his courageous leadership for civil rights and years of public service.

He addressed students who read his graphic novel March: Book One, which was the 2014 selection for Marquette University’s First-year Reading Program. Lewis added to the impact with a visit on campus to discuss his journey and the book with faculty, staff and students.

Congressman John Lewis speaking at Marquette University on Aug. 20, 2014.

“I want young students to believe that they, too, can play a major role in bringing about change,” he told the book discussion leaders.

“I want young students to believe that they, too, can play a major role in bringing about change” — John Lewis

Lewis began his involvement in the civil rights movement while a seminary student in Nashville, Tennessee, leading the Nashville Student Movement. By age 23, he was a key organizer and keynote speaker at the 1963 March on Washington.

He faced opposition from every angle. In 1961, when he joined the Freedom Rides driving from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, he was attacked. During restaurant sit-ins in Nashville, patrons yelled, kicked and extinguished cigarettes on him.

His parents advised caution: “Don’t get in the way,” and “Don’t get in trouble.”

But Lewis refused to back down.

He had a vision of a “beloved community,” a community “at peace with itself,” he says. To achieve it, he “had to find a way to get in the way.”

In his darkest moments, his favorite Bible passage, Psalm 27:1, brought hope.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?”

Lewis’ courage made him a leader at an early age. “You cannot lead people to a point that you’re not willing to go yourself,” he explains.

Lewis was arrested more than 40 times. One arrest remains special; it happened on Feb. 27, 1960. It was his first arrest and the moment he chose to put his life on the line for what he believed. Lewis describes feeling as though he had “crossed over.”

“You cannot lead people to a point that you’re not willing to go yourself” — John Lewis

“I felt so liberated,” he says. “I have not looked back since.”

That night, Lewis shared his liberation with 89 other people who also “found a way to get in the way.” Lewis calls it getting in “good trouble” — the kind that changes the course of history.

March: Book One was co-authored with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. The story shows the ways the young people of the movement organized and created change. Aydin worked for Lewis for several years before discussing his idea to illustrate the story.

“You see and hear the optimism that exists in his voice,” Aydin says. “It became a matter of taking what he had to say and putting it down on paper.”

Dr. Stephanie Quade, dean of students and member of the committee that selected March: Book One, calls Lewis’ story a powerful reminder of an individual and collective call to action.

“His personal journey, his accomplishments and his missteps are important reminders and challenges as students begin their lives at Marquette,” Quade says.