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Lewis recalls King as hero

Addressing a Chapel nearly filled with people joined to celebrate and honor the life of Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., delivered a serious, inspiring speech Sunday.

A man introduced by professor emeritus of history John Hope Franklin as one who finds "nothing more important than seeking the realization of the goal of equality," Lewis focused on remembering the importance of King's life while at the same time continuing his efforts.

Beginning with a light-hearted anecdote of his Pike County, Ala. childhood, Lewis set the tone for his reverent, challenging and uplifting speech.

Reflecting on his 10-year personal relationship with "the moral leader of this nation," Lewis explained that he "regarded [King] as a brother, friend, colleague, prophet, spiritual leader and hero."

During his celebration of King's life, Lewis found it important to focus both on King's message and on his methods. "The concept of nonviolent resistance was a ray of hope.... King spoke to the hearts and conscience of all of those who believed nonviolence is the way [to create social change]," he said.

Lewis, a long-time activist and co-founder and former chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, recounted multiple stories of the racism and abuse he and others encountered during their youth, including a concussion he suffered during the attempted march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

Explaining that King valued the creation of one American community, Lewis said, "His message was love, his weapon was truth, and his method was nonviolence." Lewis said the world is a better place because of these aspects of the life and work of King. "Dr. King produced light in dark places.... He gave us hope in a time of hopelessness." Lewis said.

Lewis asserted that "Martin Luther King, more than any other man in the 20th century, had the power to bring more people together to do good." He reminded the audience how difficult it had been to register black citizens to vote, urging everyone not to forget these troubles and become immune to current racial issues. Lewis reasserted King's ideals as he said, "Don't give up, don't give in, don't give out, and don't get lost in a sea of despair. Keep the faith."

Nearing the end of his speech, Lewis explained that the 1968 assassination of King did not kill his dream of peace. "He taught us to be willing to struggle for what is right, what is fair, what is just," Lewis said. Prior to receiving a standing ovation, he concluded, "We're going to build the beloved community and walk with the wind and let the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. be our leader forevermore."

History professor Charles Payne gave a final reflection to Lewis' speech by challenging the audience to realize that King's ideals have not yet been fully attained and that continued action is needed. Reading a passage from a speech that Lewis gave at the 1963 March on Washington, Payne stressed that the civil rights movement's quest for economic justice for black Americans remains unresolved.

Sunday's annual commemorative ceremony began with traditional African elements of percussion and a welcome by several dignitaries, including President Nan Keohane and Durham mayor Nick Tennyson. Describing King's life as "lyrical, epochal and tragic", Keohane said race hatred still has the power to kill and encouraged the audience to "take up the shield of love" in the fight against racism.

At a reception following Lewis' passionate words, one of the coordinators of the King weekend, Trinity junior Nii-Amar Amamoo said, "This was more of a personal, intimate speech. I think it comes with the territory. It comes with the speaker."

Jaime Levy contributed to this story.

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