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Tom Block: Meeting John Lewis shows how far we've come, how far we still have to go

Louisville is the home of the Kentucky Authors Forum, an organization that brings leading authors together for an evening of discussion. The usual format is to have the author interviewed, in a living room setting by an interesting person, with questions from the audience at the end. Last week the guest author was U.S. Congressman John Lewis who has written March, the first volume of a trilogy of his experience during the Civil Rights Movement. The interviewer was MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.

Congressman Lewis is the only surviving speaker from the historic March on Washington of 1963 when Martin Luther King gave his inspirational “I have a dream” speech. Lewis at the time was only 23 but already a leader of the Civil Rights Movement serving as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Coincidently, I had just been to Texas the previous week and saw a historic reminder of our history of segregation. In the McKinney, Texas, courthouse, during a recent renovation, they discovered an old “Whites Only” sign by a toilet and restored the sign, but forever closed the toilet as a simple statement to the sins of the past. Then at the Authors Forum I had the chance to meet and listen to one of the leaders who challenged the Jim Crow laws that permitted “Whites Only” signs for public accommodations throughout the American South.

Congressman Lewis told humorous stories such as his first experience preaching, his congregation consisting of the assembled chickens at the childhood farm in Alabama where his father was a sharecropper. But he also told serious stories about the beatings he withstood as he participated in the Freedom Rides of the early 60s protesting the Jim Crow laws that created the Whites Only signs throughout the South.

Probably the most infamous beating was when he led marchers across the Pettus Bridge in Alabama as protestors walked from Selma to Montgomery, in an effort to push for enforcement of the Voters Rights Act and encourage African-Americans to register to vote. Lewis told the fear of his parents for their son’s involvement; but he spoke eloquently of his commitment to the cause.

In the fight to ensure voting rights for Blacks in the South he was taunted, beaten and sent to prison, but his spirit survived. And in a great American story, he now votes in Congress as a member of the House of Representatives from Georgia.

Meeting John Lewis one realizes how far we have come, but the discussion also made the audience realize how much more there is to do.

Tom Block is a public policy consultant who had a 21-year career with JP Morgan Chase where he served as head of government relations in New York City and created a Washington research product. He also created the bank’s EU Government Relations program and developed a new position as U.S. Government Policy Strategist focusing on how U.S. government policy impacts capital markets. He has an extensive government and banking background, has worked on political campaigns and as a speech writer. He is a family trustee of Bernheim Aboretum in Louisville and holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from American University. He and his wife make their home in Kentucky. He is a regular contributor to KyForward. Contact him at tomblockct@aol.com.

For more columns from Tom Block, click here.

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