Last week John Lewis, the only living member of the “Big 6” from the Civil Rights Movement, said that meeting Martin Luther King Jr. when he was 18 changed his life.
Oliver Telusma, a second year student at UF, said meeting Lewis changed his.
“When I look back on my life, I’ll be able to say ‘when I was 19 I met Congressman John Lewis,’” said Telusma, who came to hear Lewis speak to students and community members at the University of Florida on October 16 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
Students asked Lewis questions about his role in the Civil Rights Movement, what it was like to work alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and how many times he was arrested – over 40.
Lewis, 75, has represented Georgia’s District 5 in Congress since 1987. He worked with King, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins to organize the pivotal March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
Yet a topic that continued to come up was his opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement today.
“You cannot swipe the issue of race under the rug, we have to talk about it,” Lewis said. “Race controls everything we do. It is deeply embedded in our society.”
“Bloody Sunday” was one of the most brutal events during the Selma to Montgomery marches. Alabama state troopers attacked protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge when they refused to disperse.
Lewis was one of the leaders of this march and despite sustaining a skull fracture, he continued working toward voter equality.
While there is more racial representation today in American politics, Lewis said he feels the fight isn’t over.
“We’re not there yet. Simply because we elect a black president and black members of Congress, we’re not there yet,” he said.
Lewis also gave some insight into how the Black Lives Matter movement has advantages that the Civil Rights Movement did not.
“With social media, you can do so much,” Lewis said. “In my era, we didn’t have that. You can reach a lot of people with it.”
Jacof Terán, a fourth-year student at UF, said he thinks another advantage the Black Lives Matter movement has is unification of marginalized groups.
Terán said he feels that despite the type of oppression differing amongst groups, the oppression comes from the same systems set in place.
“There is strength in numbers,” he said. “Why not have brothers and sisters from other communities fighting the battle alongside you?”
He also said he believes social media is fueling the fight against police brutality, which is a key focus in the movement.
“No longer are people allowing these things to occur with their mouths shut. They are speaking up so that their sons and daughters do not become hashtags,” Terán said.
Telusma also said after listening to Lewis, he felt like he had a greater understanding of what meaningful life entails.
“I would venture to say that people would say that 75 years old is closer to the end of life,” Telusma said. “His energy showed me that 75 is just as much alive as 25 or 35.”
At the end of his discussion, Lewis made it a point to tell those fighting for the Black Lives Matter movement their work isn’t for nothing. The momentum will only go up from here.
“We must pace ourselves,” he said. “We act like firecrackers, ready to pop off. We should be like a pilot light and continue to burn.”