by Calvary Diggs
It’s a little over fifty years ago, and the United States exists in less vibrant tones and colors. No diversity. No rainbows. The atmosphere operates only on an absolute of black and white.
For one child, he first began to understand the diff
erence– one that he’d later describe as ‘inequality’ and ‘injustice’ – when he was denied access to a local library. He’s black. The library was for whites only.
Years later, the child – not so young and naïve anymore – finds a comic about a man named, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The child sees the similarities. Empathizes. Wants to help make the world a better place.
Many years later, he’s in college and a young man.
He decides to take part in the freedom rides. At twenty-three, he marches and speaks alongside Dr. King – his hero. The young man learns to understand generations of pain and hate while enduring a growing list of arrests and hate crimes. He has to exercise grit and determination at Selma as he’s violently attacked by police. And he shows courage and integrity to this day as a congressman working with the rights of others in mind.
This man is Congressman John Lewis, and we are honored to have him deliver a keynote address at the National Forum on Character Education.
As education professionals involved in character education, we frequently ask, “What does good character like in action?” To answer this question, we actively seek real-life role models and genuine examples. They provide us with the inspiration, ideas, and stamina necessary to lead our youth to becoming productive citizens with strong ethical principles. No one embodies these qualities better than John Lewis.
Lewis is currently serving his fifteenth term with the Congressional District of Atlanta, Georgia – amounting to nearly thirty years of service to the area.
In addition to his exceptional leadership in the legislature, Lewis is most known for his activism during the Civil Rights Movement. He is often referred to as one of the, ‘Big Six’ in Civil Rights, due to his roles in the March on Washington in 1963 and the march from Selma to Birmingham, also known as ‘Bloody Sunday.’ Lewis holds a wealth of wisdom and experience concerning what it means, feels, and looks like to have true moral and performance character. And that is ultimately why we are overjoyed to have him speak at this year’s Forum.
We at Character.org look forward to the Forum each year because it is a key time to share ideas and successes of character in the classroom. It also provides the opportunity to brainstorm solutions to difficult problems and challenges. Words. Ideas. Action. Sharing experiences. They matter. Good character matters, and it always will.
Character.org truly believes in the significance of good character, and so does Congressman
Lewis. It’s present in the core of our organization as it was present, over fifty years ago, in John Lewis’ speech (at twenty-three years old) at the March on Washington.
Character.org and Lewis know that any effort for positive, lasting, change requires a community effort from all stakeholders. At Character.org, this means collaboration with educators, students, communities, researchers, and policymakers. We do this by:
“Providing the vision, leadership and resources for schools, families and communities to develop ethical citizens committed to building a just and caring world.”
And for Lewis, there was a need for community solidarity and action. This meant empowering people of color through non-violent protest wherever they could find a platform.
“But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.”
He understood that when a community backs a mutual effort, goal or dream, it thrives. The same is true with building effective schools and communities of character, yet vision and purpose isn’t all that’s needed.
In Lewis’ case, he currently serves as a congressman. And in the past, he served as a civil rights advocate despite being imprisoned forty times, having a number of violent encounters, and receiving a head injury at Selma – as you will likely hear during his address. Lewis, and those like-minded individuals who believed in rights for all, continued to speak out in the face of danger despite attempts to quell their voices -- ultimately winning with the passing of the Civil Rights Bill.
“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now.”
As a man embodying strong character for over fifty years, we look forward to hearing Lewis speak to the value of strong character, community collaboration, and persistent effort.