Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient – Congressman John Lewis


Congressman Lewis:
This is a long way from
growing up in rural Alabama; from the sit-ins, the Freedom
Rides, the March on Washington, the march from
Selma to Montgomery. In my younger life
when I was growing up, I saw those signs that said,
white men, colored men; white women, colored women;
white waiting, colored waiting. And then coming here the first
time in 1963 to meet with President Kennedy and to come
back and to be honored by the first African-American
president — it’s amazing. It’s unbelievable. I was just deeply inspired and
moved by the action of Rosa Parks in 1955 — when I was
15 years old in the 10th grade. And later, I heard the words
of Dr. King on the old radio. It seemed like he was
saying to me, “John Lewis, you too can do something.” And I would ask my mother, ask
my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents,
“Why segregation? Why racial discrimination?” They would say,
“That’s the way it is! Don’t get in the way;
don’t get in trouble.” But Dr. King inspired
me to get in trouble. And I will never forget, after
the sit-ins and during the Freedom Rides and
during the campaign of President John F.
Kennedy — listen to him. He inspired me. And later, meeting his
brother, Robert Kennedy, inspired me to continue to push. And even today, I feel like
I’m continuing the work that individuals like Dr.
King and others — President Kennedy and
Robert Kennedy — started. In middle school, I had a
teacher who told me over and over again, “Read, my child. Read, my child.” And I tried to read
everything that I had. We didn’t have that many books
in our home when I was growing up, but I read the books, the
newspapers, the magazines, and I will tell
young people to read. Read. You know, you may not have
the resources to travel, but by reading, by
going to a library, you can travel all over America. You can travel all
over the world. And people must have the
desire to get out there; to push and pull and
to never give up; to never get lost in a sea of
despair, but to keep the faith. We have to find a way
to make a contribution. You have to believe in yourself
and have faith in your fellow man or woman, and have this
abiding faith that there are things that are so right,
so good, so necessary, that you’re willing to die for. Be not afraid. I feel more than lucky
but very blessed, and so I accept this honor on
behalf of countless individuals — that marched; that stood
in those unmovable lines; those that were beaten; those
that was killed in the struggle. And I just tried to
do my little part, and to help create a more
perfect union to make our country better.

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