United States

‘We Are One Family': Civil Rights Icon Visits With Vt. Students

Rep. John Lewis, widely considered a major figure in the U.S. civil rights movement, spoke with students from around Vermont Tuesday.

An icon from the country's civil rights movement paid a visit to Vermont Tuesday, meeting with students who have been learning about his contributions to history.

"We are one people — we are one family," Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, told a crowd at downtown Burlington's Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.

Lewis spoke with middle and high school students from around Vermont, telling them stories of his time with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the front lines in the fight for civil rights.

"And as Dr. King said, 'We must live together as brothers and sisters,'" Lewis said from the stage at the Flynn. "If not, we will perish as fools."

Widely regarded as a major figure in the civil rights movement, Lewis suffered a skull fracture when he was beaten by Alabama state troopers on the Pettus Bridge in Selma in a 1965 protest for voting access.

More than half a century later, now a longtime member of the U.S. House, Lewis was the guest of the Vermont Humanities Council.

"I hope that it shapes them in a way that they actually are going to be people that speak out, and do the right thing," Tess Taylor, the director of community programs for the Vermont Humanities Council, said of her hope for what students would take away from the presentation.

The council's statewide reading initiative, Vermont Reads, encouraged communities to pick up the first of a three-part graphic novel, "March," which illustrates Lewis' lifelong commitment to social justice.

"I think it was amazing," Burlington High School junior Bernadette Mukeba said of the first of two presentations Lewis gave Tuesday. "It was really exciting to see him. It was very inspirational."

Another Burlington junior, Farhiya Hassan, noted she was impressed at how Lewis has managed not to be bitter about the beatings he suffered and discrimination he fought against as a young man.

"He doesn't have hatred for the people who treated him horrible," Hassan observed.

While Lewis wants kids to know about history, he told the group Tuesday morning that he is optimistic for the future, noting he is impressed at how engaged young people are on a range of their generation's fights, including addressing climate change and continuing the work to end discrimination.

"One day, one of you could be president of the United States of America," Lewis told the audience at the Flynn. "One day, one of you can help bring our country together, where we end discrimination against people because of their race or the color of their skin."

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