SCHENECTADY As keynote speaker U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, looked out at the excited group of 470-plus Union College graduates-to-be Sunday morning, he remarked on the sweet, warm spirit he felt on campus, and then challenged the Class of 2013 to go out and get into trouble.
Throughout his life, that’s just what the congressman and renowned civil rights leader said he has done.
As a youngster growing up as the son of Alabama sharecroppers, he said he became aware of signs put up to segregate white people from colored people and wondered why they were necessary.
He asked his family and they told him, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”
But after learning about civil rights activist Rosa Parks and hearing the words of Martin Luther King Jr., he strayed from his family’s advice.
“I was inspired to get into it and to get into good trouble, necessary trouble,” he recounted.
He instructed the graduates-to-be to do the same: “As you leave here, you must go out and get in trouble — good trouble, necessary trouble — and help change America and help change our world.”
Starting in early adulthood, Lewis was an influential figure in the civil rights movement. As a student at Fisk University, he organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville. He was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders beaten and arrested for challenging segregation on interstate buses, and at age 23, helped organize the historic March on Washington when 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
In 1965, he helped lead hundreds of people on a peaceful march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. — an event that became known as Bloody Sunday after the marchers were met by state troopers with bullwhips, billy clubs and tear gas.
“Forty-eight years later I’m still here, and I must tell you I’m not bitter or hostile. I don’t have any hatred. I’m trying to tell you as students, as graduates, as you go out from Union College, you must go with peace, with love, with truth, and never, ever give up. Never, ever give in. Never get lost in a sea of despair and never hate, for hate is too heavy a burden to bear,” he told the crowd, his voice full of conviction.
Students at Union’s 219th commencement said Sunday that they were eager to make a positive mark on the world.
Latin American and Caribbean Studies major Melanny Dominguez Vega of Worcester, Mass., said she plans to get involved with foreign affairs.
“I’d like to travel the world and go to Latin America and help out in impoverished communities,” she said, while waiting in line for commencement to begin.
Francisco DeJesus of New York City, a psychology and Latin American and Caribbean Studies major, said he wants to become a member of the FBI or a police officer.
“Something I would like to do is create awareness for things that have happened so they won’t keep repeating themselves, such as hate crimes and racist acts,” he said, noting that he’d like that awareness to start with young children.
“That way they won’t grow up with that old-fashioned mentality,” he explained.
Anthropology major Yuki Eito of Japan said she believes friendship is key to making a difference in the world.
“Making a lot of friends makes the world better. Because they’re your friends, you’re not going to want to fight against each other,” she reasoned.
Eito plans to return to Japan to be a police officer.
Farishta Esmati of Niskayuna, who majored in biology and plans to go to medical school, said she believes her entire graduating class has a desire to better the world.
“I think we all want to take what we’ve learned here, our skills and all the things that we’ve learned, and basically use them in the world and try to make a difference,” she said.