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News Posted on July 20, 2020

Civil rights icon John Lewis inspired the King Hall community during 2016 visit

Congressman John Lewis, a towering figure in the civil rights movement and a lifelong advocate for social justice, died July 17 in Atlanta after battling cancer. He was 80.

UC Davis School of Law was honored to have Lewis speak at its 2016 commencement ceremony. During his rousing speech, he recalled marching and speaking alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for whom the law school building is named.

King and Lewis -- then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- were among the “Big Six” civil rights leaders who organized 1963’s March on Washington. Lewis also was one of the original “Freedom Riders” who rode buses across the South to challenge segregation on public transportation. In 1965, Lewis was beaten by state troopers during the "Bloody Sunday" march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.

“I gave a little blood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” Lewis told the 2016 UC Davis Law graduates during his commencement speech. “I thought I was going to die. But somehow, some way, a group of lawyers wrote the Voting Rights Act. Congress passed it, and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law.”

Lawyers play a vital role in working for social change, Lewis reminded the graduates.

“As young lawyers you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate to get in trouble," he said. "When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you must stand up, speak up, and speak out. Use the law!”

Lewis represented Georgia's 5th district in the House of Representatives from 1987 until his death. As part of his civil rights legacy, he spoke out on immigration policies, during the Trump era and during previous administrations.

In 2013, Lewis was arrested at a Washington, D.C., rally that called for comprehensive immigration reform. On Twitter, Lewis shared a picture of himself being led away by police, with the caption “Arrest number 45.”

Dean Kevin R. Johnson said Lewis’ 2016 visit was one of the highlights of Johnson’s career at King Hall.

“He was sincere, and decent, and very generously gave his time to talk to our students and their families, and to our alumni,” Johnson recalled. “He shared his thoughts on civil rights and the continuing struggle for justice. And Congressman Lewis really knew how to tell a gripping and meaningful story.”

At UC Davis Law, and throughout the nation, “We are sad to lose a hero,” Johnson said.

Watch the video of Lewis’ UC Davis School of Law commencement address here.