AFGE was honored to be invited to the Department of Labor’s Black History Month celebration featuring one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced – Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. AFGE was represented by National Secretary Treasurer Eugene Hudson, Jr., Council of Prison Locals President Eric Young, and Executive Assistant to the National Secretary-Treasurer Dr. Arla J. Bentley.
The event, called A Conversation with Congressman John Lewis, was moderated by Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who considers Congressman Lewis a mentor and an inspiration. Perez praised Lewis for his “capability for forgiveness” despite what he has been through, including being arrested more than 40 times because of his civil rights activism.
Lewis was only 17 when he got involved in the civil rights movement. He was inspired by Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who came to know Lewis and called him “the boy from Troy.” Lewis organized sit-in protests at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee, when he was a student at Fisk University. In 1961, he participated in the Freedom Rides, challenging segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. On those rides, he risked his life and was beaten severely by angry mobs. One of the people who beat him up later sought him out after Lewis became a member of Congress. He came to Lewis’s office with his son and apologized for what he did. Lewis was one of the civil rights leaders who led more than 600 protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, to Montgomery to call for voting rights for African Americans in the state. Protesters were attacked, prompting two more marches where many activists were again attacked and killed. Because of their heroic acts, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The new film Selma is based on these historic marches.
Lewis credited labor unions for their contributions to the civil rights movement. Labor leaders took part in the marches and other civil rights protests. “Without organized labor, without the music of labor, we wouldn’t have made it,” he told the packed auditorium.
As the country is marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act next month, Perez expressed dismay for the recent attacks on voting rights through new voter ID laws and other measures aimed at curtailing the voting rights of minorities, seniors, and the poor. He asked Lewis how to keep faith. “You have to have what I call an executive decision with yourself. Be hopeful. Stand up for what you believe in,” Lewis said.
At the end of the event, Perez thanked Lewis and vowed to “get into good trouble” to honor him and the entire civil rights movement.