Against the backdrop of its 50th anniversary, SUNY Old Westbury, a college founded during the height of the American civil rights movement, welcomed two icons of that age to campus to reflect on the events of yesterday and forecast their ideas for tomorrow during “The Future of America: Race and Class.”
U.S. Representative John Lewis, recognized internationally for his work as a founder and chairman of the famed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and for his ongoing commitment to equality and fairness, and Bill Moyers, an integral member of the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson who went on to become among the nation’s most-respected journalists and commentators, regaled an audience of more than 400 students, faculty and friends of the College during their session in the John & Lillian Maguire Theater.
Moderated by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Les Payne, the event was held as part of the College’s 50th Anniversary programming, “A Celebration of Educational Leadership and Empowerment.”
The discussion between Lewis and Moyers ranged far and wide, from Lewis’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as part of the 1963 “March on Washington,” to his thoughts as he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to Moyers’ insights on the behind the scenes discussions that took place in the White House as President Johnson and his staff watched news coverage of Lewis and his fellow activists.
“Part of the movement from its inception was to make it plain, make it real, for the whole nation and world to see,” said Lewis as he recounted the training in non-violence that saw him through lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides. “We had to make it real and we felt that if we were true to the immutable principle and philosophy of peace and non-violence, the nation would respond.”
Often at odds with law enforcement during the peaceful protests organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, of which he was a founder and chairman, Lewis described for the audience his first arrest, on February 27, 1960. “I grew up being told by my parents: ‘Don’t get in trouble,’” he said. “But when I was arrested for the first time, for sitting in at a Woolworth’s store waiting to be served , I felt free. I felt liberated. I felt like I crossed over. During the 1960s, I was arrested 40 times, and since I’ve been in Congress I’ve been arrested five more times, and I’m probably going to get arrested again for something.”
Moyers later described President Johnson’s response upon passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the question of whether the new legislation would lead to the election of an African-American president in their lifetimes. “He said, ‘No, we’ll have a woman first,’” said Moyers. “And I was wondering, wherever he is, what he was thinking in 2008 when Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton during the election.”
Looking forward, Lewis addressed the students in attendance, saying his hopes for continued progress lied with them.
“I am very optimistic about the future,” he said. “As a people and as a nation, I am convinced we will get there and transform our country into a better place. We will lay down the burden of race, and if we can get it right, we will serve as a model for the rest of the world.”
Moyers noted he was less “hopeful” given the divisiveness of current political rhetoric and long-standing structural biases in America but urged students to be active in promoting change. “Never underestimate the power of your witness as young people,” said Moyers. “Never forget it takes courage on the ground to move others to act. Then it takes courage in leadership in politics to enable that courage to be vindicated and to lead to real change.”
In closing, Congressman Lewis noted: “At the March on Washington, I spoke about a revolution. There must be a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas. We must get people to move to that point. I’m convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that we will see more African-Americans, more Latinos, more Asian-Americans coming into power and changing America forever. In the process, we can never lose hope, because when you lose hope, it’s like giving up.”
In discussing the day’s events, SUNY Old Westbury President Calvin O. Butts, III noted:
“I am proud we were able to have such a moving program that not only excites and informs our students about the history and ongoing trajectory of our nation, but that ties so well into the mission and values of our College,” said Dr. Butts. “Born out of the civil rights and human rights movements, SUNY Old Westbury still stands strong for the equality of all and for social justice not only here at our college and across Long Island, but throughout the United States and the world.”