Rep. John Lewis: `Get in necessary trouble'

`There's still a distance to go, ' Lewis tells MCLA graduates

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NORTH ADAMS — Rep. John Lewis held forth on the future to a packed house of hopeful graduates.

"We came a distance," Lewis said. "We've made a lot of progress. There's still a distance to go."

Lewis was in North Adams Saturday as the keynote speaker at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' commencement ceremony.

The Georgia congressman has a long history in civil rights activism and leadership, which includes serving as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and as a key organizer and speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. In leading a demonstration for voting rights in 1965, Lewis was beaten by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1986 and has served ever since.

Lewis received an honorary doctorate in Public Service from MCLA.

The college also honored David E. Phelps, the president and CEO of Berkshire Health Systems, with an honorary doctorate in Public Service, and Anne W. Crowley, '77, retired executive vice president and director of Corporate Affairs at Fidelity Investments, with an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters.

The college graduated over 300 baccalaureates and over 50 with graduate degrees. The college's president, James F. Birge, gave welcoming and closing remarks.

The ceremony was held in the Amsler Campus Center gymnasium at midday Saturday on an overcast day with intermittent showers.

The room was packed from the floor to the bleachers.

The ceremony opened with students singing "America the Beautiful" and "You Will be Found" to the attendees. Student Government President Timothy Williams, and Master of Education candidate Christopher Tamburrino delivered greetings to the crowd.

After the conferring the three honorary degrees, Birge turned the floor over to Lewis.

When the congressman took the podium, he took control of the room. Lewis delivered a speech to a rapt audience, touching on his own decade of activism and looked ahead to the challenges of today and tomorrow— a mix of reflection and inspiration.

"We must rebuild the sense of hope, the sense of optimism," he said.

With that optimism must come the acknowledgement of the present threat of turning back the advances of the last five decades, Lewis warned.

"There are forces that want to take us back" to the days before the civil rights movement, the congressman thundered in his reedy baritone. "It doesn't make sense."

Although things may seem bleak now, Lewis continued, we mustn't give in. Don't get lost in desperation, he told the crowd. There is still reason to hope.

"You are on your way to go and change the world," he told the graduating class.

The world is depending on the graduates in the room, Lewis said. He charged the class of 2017 with the moral mandate to "stand up, speak up and speak out" against injustice.

"Go out there and get in the way," Lewis exhorted the crowd of graduates. "Get in trouble, get in necessary trouble, and make some noise."

Reach staff writer Eoin Higgins at 413-496-6236 or @BE_EoinHiggins.

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