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News at Mason

Congressman and civil rights movement icon John Lewis to visit George Mason University

October 3, 2018

by John Hollis and Mary Lee Clark

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the longtime congressman from Georgia who played a key role in the civil rights movement, will be a featured speaker at this year’s Fall for the Book festival.

Lewis, who was first elected to Congress from Georgia’s 5th District in 1987, will share his experiences with George Mason University students on Oct. 11 when he appears at the Center for the Arts on the Fairfax Campus at 1:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Lewis, a Democrat whose district includes most of Atlanta, will be promoting the book he wrote with Andrew Aydin, “March: Book One,” the first of a three-part graphic memoir series that was tapped as this year’s selection for the Mason Reads program.

But his key role as a civil rights leader in the 1960s is likely what intrigues Mason students most. Lewis was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders who braved violence and death threats to help desegregate interstate bus travel in 1960. He was just 23 when he helped organize the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis preceded King at the speaker’s podium that day and is the only one of that group still living. In 1965, Lewis helped lead more than 600 marchers across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, only to be beaten by state troopers.

Change begins one person at a time, and a Mason professor says that John Lewis’ inspirational life is testament to that.

“John Lewis will not only inspire our students, but will show them that one person can effect positive change,” said Wendi Manuel-Scott, an associate professor within Mason’s School of Integrative Studies and the Department of History and Art History. “John Lewis’ life and legacy demonstrates to our students that they should never feel hopeless. There are people who refused to accept powerlessness, and John Lewis is among them.”

In discussing their book, Lewis and Aydin—the congressman’s digital director and policy advisor—have spoken about the capability of today’s students to harness the power of the internet and pair it with principles of nonviolence to create positive change.

“[Students need to] understand their power, that they understand what they’re capable of and that they’re at a moment of time in their lives that they get to make big decisions,” Aydin said. “These decisions—if they organize and if they join together—can have a tremendous influence over our society.”

Lewis’ book series has risen to No. 1 on the New York Times and Washington Post bestseller lists and received a Special Recognition award at the 2014 Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards.

Every year, the Mason Reads program selects a common book for incoming freshmen that can also be used in their academic classes and programming.

“The themes in this book tie perfectly to what we want the Mason graduate to be: civically engaged and prepared to act,” said Emilie Dubert, associate director of Off-Campus Student Services. “We hope students will be encouraged by the [memoir] to mobilize for something they feel passionately about—whether it be a political, humanitarian, environmental or other cause.”