President Jamie Birge shakes the hand of a graduate wearing Birge's trademark fashion statements — a bowtie. See more photos here.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — An icon of Civil Rights Movement, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Alanta, Ga., urged the class of 2017 to "be brave, be bold, be courageous" and turn the world upside down.
"There are forces in America today that want to take us back to another place, another time," he told the graduates at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts on Saturday morning. "We've come too far, we've made too much progress and we must not go back, we must go forward as a nation."
The Georgia Democrat was met with rounds of applause as he spoke from the stage at MCLA's 118th commencement exercises in the Amsler Campus Center. As he completed his speech, someone from crowd yelled out, "we love you, John Lewis!"
He recalled growing up on his father's farm with its cotton, corn, peanuts, hogs and cows. With the idea of becoming a minister, he and his siblings would gather the chickens for practice preaching — and the birds would bob and shake their heads. They wouldn't say "amen," Lewis said, but they seemed to have listened to him more than some of his colleagues did ... and produced more, too, he added to laughter.
But his family would quiet him when he asked why there were signs for colored and white, why he and his friends had to sit in the balcony at the theater while the white children were on floor, why he couldn't get a library card.
Don't get in the way and don't get I trouble, they told him, it's just the way things are.
But as teenager he heard about Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat, and about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"It inspired me to find a way to get in the way ... and I got in the way," he said.
Lewis would join King and the Civil Rights Movement and help organize the 1963 March on Washington as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He would be arrested 40 times, and five more while representing Georgia's 5th District. The last time was in 2013 during a protest by Democratic lawmakers at the Capitol as they tried to push the Republican House leadership to bring forward an immigration bill that Lewis said had enough bipartisan support to pass.
"It doesn't make sense for millions and millions of people, including little children, to be living in fear in the United States of America," Lewis said. "Set them on the path to citizenship."
As King had once said, Lewis continued, "we all came to this land in different ships, but now we're all in the same boat."
More recently, Lewis was in the news after stating the incoming president was "illegitimate," which led Donald Trump to tweet that Lewis, who has fought for equal rights for 50 years, was "all talk."
In an impromptu speech, Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash brought greetings to Lewis from Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, after joking he'd stopped first at a giant pancake breakfast in Springfield.
"Gov. Baker has asked me especially Congressman Lewis, to thank you for being here, for sharing your special leadership with this class and continuing to be the inspiration you are not only to this class but to the entire commonwealth," he said. "We're so lucky to have had you serving in Congress. We look forward to your continued service and we hope that out of this audience is the next Congressman John Lewis ready to serve. ...
"So thank you sir for all that you've done for this country."
The 13-term congressman does feel that there has been progress. He told of how whites and blacks had come to hear him speak at book signing in the library that once had refused him a library card. And the time an elderly former Ku Klux Klan member had come to his office to admit he had beaten Lewis and his friends when they'd entered a white waiting room. He asked for forgiveness.
"He cried, his son cried. The three of us cried together. It is the power of the way of peace," the congressman said. "We must have the ability to forgive. To respect the dignity and the words of everybody ...
"I believe there is the spark of the divine in everyone and we don't have the right to abuse it."
He encouraged them to adhere to the philosophy of peaceful resistance, and to push back against the "mean spirit" that's been evident recently. Don't hate, he said, because that's too heavy a burden to carry but rather love as much as possible.
"Get out there, get in the way, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble and make some noise," he shouted.
Lewis was presented an honorary doctor in public service, one of three distinguished guests getting honorary degrees on Saturday. Anne W. Crowley, a 1977 MCLA graduate and former senior adviser to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, received an honorary doctor of humane letters for her work in the public and private sphere; Berkshire Health Systems President and CEO David E. Phelps also received an honorary doctor of public service. All three will have books placed in Freel Library in their names.
Among the speakers was Student Government Association President Timothy P. Williams of Coxsackie, N.Y., who was earning a bachelor's degree in political science, and special education teacher Christopher Tamburrino, earning a master's of education. Graduates Crysta Cheverie, Victoria Fernandez and Virvioly Valdez sang "American the Beautiful" and were joined by the chorus for "You Will Be Found."
Christine Condaris, faculty marshal and professor in the Fine and Performing Arts Department, led the procession; Cynthia Brown, vice president of academic affairs presented the candidates and Graziana Ramsden, professor of language, announced the candidates. The usual gathering on the lawn afterwards was moved to Venable Hall because of the threat of rain.
As many of the graduates prepared to enter the workforce, Secretary Ash asked them to consider Massachusetts, saying many of existing and new businesses have told him they are unable to find the skilled workers they need.
"I would say across every spectrum there are jobs available," he said. "Here in Massachusetts, there's an opportunity to do anything you want anywhere you want."
President James Birge charged them with making the world a better place.
"There is a pressing need in the world for thoughtful intelligent, creative people the world and our communities are calling for more MCLA graduates to ameliorate the conditions that have become so oppressive and so dangerous for so many," he said, reminding them that the college's motto of "in light there is truth."
"MCLA has lighted the lantern of truth in you use this light to reveal what you can do to improve the world for all of us."
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