University of Minnesota Alumni Association


From the President

Lessons from John Lewis

Joan T.A. Gabel

U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey once noted, “The test we must set for ourselves is not to march alone but to march in such a way that others will wish to join us.” In December 2016, the University of South Carolina, where I then served as Provost, recognized the late U.S. Congressman John Lewis—a man who exemplified the ideal of Humphrey’s sentiment.

In delivering the commencement speech to graduates after receiving his honorary degree, Lewis spoke for less than 10 minutes but he held the Carolina audience captive. He shared his calling to preach, the love of his family farm, and his first experiences with racial segregation. In particular, he noted that in 1955, as a 15-yearold 10th grader, he first heard of Rosa Parks, and first heard the words of Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King’s words and Parks’ actions inspired him “to find a way to get in the way.” And as he ventured into a life of “trouble,” he noted, “I got in good trouble. Necessary trouble”—and he encouraged the 2016 graduates to go out and do the same to help make the nation and world a better place.

Being in John Lewis’ orbit, even just for a short time, was a great honor. During his remarks, he only briefly referred to his historic civil rights work. There was no mention of being a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or being the last living member of the “Big Six” leaders who addressed the crowd at the 1963 March on Washington. He didn’t speak of the Freedom Rides and the bravery he exhibited in the face of bloody violence in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Nor did he speak of the over three dozen times he went to jail. In fact, he said, “During the 1960s, I was arrested a few times, beaten, left bloody, unconscious. I thought I was going to die on that bridge in Selma. I thought I saw death. But I lived.”

This past July, our nation, and the world, lost John Lewis. As we reflect on this loss, and our call to action as a result of George Floyd’s murder, we are reminded that the change we seek requires us to feel uncomfortable, and often leaves us fatigued. But we grow strength from John Lewis and we hope you do too.

We are committed to being an equitable and just University. There is much work to do on our campuses and as a member of our larger community, but work we must. In this work, let us also remember the legacy of John Lewis and his incredible life of “good trouble” for the nation and the world, and the forceful charge he gave to the class of 2016, which also helps to guide us ahead: “Go out there and get in the way. Make a little noise. Be bold. Be brave. Be courageous. And use your education, your training, to redeem the soul of our nation, and maybe help to make the world a better place for all human beings.”

With warmest regards,

Joan Gabel

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