As the only living “Big Six” leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Rep. John Lewis, (D-Ga.) addressed more than 1,000 community, youth, labor, elected, and clergy leaders in a student townhall Saturday at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Labor breakfast in Los Angeles.
The townhall, themed “Across the Bridge … to the American Dream,” served to connect young workers and students from local high schools, community colleges, and universities with lessons from the Civil Rights Movement.
Lewis, who has been called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress,” was pivotal in helping organize student activism during the Cilvil Rights Movement, told young people at the event, at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, about the importance of fighting for equality and justice.
Tefere Gebre, executive vice president of the American Federation Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), supports Rep. Lewis’ push toward the younger generation and also urged them to continue the momentum fighting against inequity.
“We have to have a purpose as to where we go. It’s not about individual police shootings,” said Gebre. “What’s happening is that we are not allowed as people of color to participate and share in America’s prosperity. Until that happens, our struggle will continue.”
Gebre, who immigrated from Ethiopia as a teen and has worked at all levels of the labor movement, said that change is necessary, especially when it comes to the rules that govern the United States. “It’s not just change on the edges. We need an entire transformation of our country so that we can have shared prosperity in the richest country in the world. Until that happens, we all have to be on the streets and fighting.
Rep. Lewis, as former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, continues to serve as one of the nation’s most recognizable advocates for fairness, integrity, and justice.
Several of the students who surrounded Lewis at the townhall asked him questions regarding disparities in the labor force. One student, Emily Lewis, posed the question of when someone determines whether to push or compromise.
“I’m not going to sit here in this chair and tell you to compromise,” Lewis said. “When you see something that is not fair, not right or unjust, you need to stand up and fight it.”
The congressman also encouraged students to take full advantage of tools such as the Internet and social media as “a blessing,” and jokingly noted that the only technology of his time was the fax machine.
Lewis recalled many of his experiences from the 1960. He noted in his youth, that he suffered from bruises and bloody beatings countless times and was arrested more than 40 times fighting against injustice.
On a sidenote, Lewis briefly spoke in advocacy of immigration reform. “I don’t accept the idea that someone is an illegal human being,” he pointed out. “There is no such thing … we all live in the same house—the American house.” He went on to express to applause from the audiences, that, “we are one house. We are one family. We are one people.”