“Our dark past is behind us,” U.S. Rep. Lewis, D-Ga., said before an audience gathered at the State Capitol to celebrate the lives and accomplishments of the eight men and women who joined the Alabama Academy of Honor. The academy is a 46-year-old institution that, according to its website, is dedicated to honoring Alabamians “chosen for accomplishment or service greatly benefitting or reflecting great credit on the state.”
Lewis, a native of Pike County, said Alabama has made sweeping changes for the better over his lifetime. Had anyone suggested a black man would be so honored by the state was unthinkable in the Alabama of Lewis’ youth.
“I would have said you are crazy,” he said. “You are out of your mind. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” His inclusion in the academy was an “unbelievable moment. It could only happen here, in the state of Alabama.”
Lewis’ upbringing in a rural community outside Troy is a touchstone for the congressman. The formula was set early for Lewis: “hard work, patience and persistence. I learned to never give up or give in or give out.” His sharecropper father scraped together enough money to buy a farm when Lewis was a young child; the land is in his family to this day.
His mother and father made sure Lewis and his six brothers and three sisters did their share of chores. Working long hours in those cotton fields “helped to make me the man I am today,” the congressman said during a phone interview Friday evening. “We were a people of faith. We believed that with the help of God Almighty” anything was possible.
The voice of Martin Luther King Jr. heard on a radio by a young Lewis inspired him to keep on pushing against the Jim Crow laws of the time. As a college student in Tennessee, Lewis endured harassment and violence as he attempted to break the segregation code. In 1961, as a freedom rider he was beaten at a Montgomery bus terminal. The pattern of violence, endorsed either overtly or discreetly by the state of Alabama, continued for much of the first half of the 1960s.
By the 1963 March on Washington, a 23-year-old Lewis was chosen to share the stage with the man whose voice had inspired him, King, who used the occasion to offer his “I Have a Dream” speech. Of the 10 speakers who stood at the lectern that August day, only Lewis is still standing. He said he frequently thinks of his fellow marchers who are no longer with us. His wish is to let those who’ve passed away know that: “We’re still here. We’re still working.”
Besides Lewis, others in the Academy of Honor’s Class of 2011 include:
- Charles C. Anderson, a native of Florence who is chairman emeritus of Books-A-Million and other related corporations.
- Robert J. Bentley, the governor of Alabama and native of Shelby County.
- David J. Cooper, an executive with Mobile-based Cooper/T. Smith, a maritime-related company.
- John Vernon Denson II, an attorney from Opelika who is one of the founders of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
- J.M. “Mike” Jenkins IV, a Montgomery native and former executive with Jenkins Brick Co.
- Barbara W. Larson, executive director of Leadership Alabama and Montgomery native.
- Robert E. Witt, president of the University of Alabama since 2003.
Lewis offered the response on behalf of his fellow classmates. Speaking carefully and deliberately at the onset, Lewis seemed to be savoring the moment. A congressman since 1986, Lewis has not lived in his native state for 48 years, however, he said, “My heart will always be in the state of Alabama.”
Much of his remarks Monday focused on the state’s changes. He credited Alabama and the South with working hard to overcome what he called a “dark past.” Lewis said, “The state is a better state and we are a better people.”
The congressman, a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tenn., offered a sort of benediction at the conclusion of his remarks.
“Let us continue as a people to be committed for what is right, for what is fair and for what is just,” he said, adding later, “We are one people, one family, the human family. We are one state, one nation and one world community.”
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.