Congressman, ‘Big Six’ leader John Lewis to deliver 155th commencement address
Civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis will deliver the annual commencement address, Chancellor Mark Wrighton announced at the Senior Class Toast on March 30.
Lewis, who has represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for 30 years, is also the only living member of the civil rights movement’s “Big Six.” The “Big Six,” which included civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., was composed of the leaders of the six organizations heavily involved in organizing the March on Washington in 1963. Lewis helmed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966.
Wrighton expressed excitement in bringing a distinguished leader to campus for commencement.
“Congressman Lewis has been a great leader, a wonderful speaker and an advocate for civil rights for a long time,” Wrighton said. “I feel very fortunate that he has made the commitment to join us for this year’s commencement. And of course, race in America is a very important subject to us now, and having a luminary like Congressman Lewis will be a great addition to our commencement.”
He said he feels that Lewis is an excellent recipient for the honorary degree and commented on the popularity of the decision within the committee responsible for its selection.
“There was great enthusiasm from the committee, and I certainly believe that his leadership in this important area played a role in having him as a very popular choice,” Wrighton said. “We’re looking forward to a great commencement. Congressman Lewis is going to add significantly to the excitement around commencement, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Students believe that Lewis’s experience and involvement in the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party are particularly relevant amidst the Black Lives Matter movements and the climate of the presidential election.
Senior Jacob Hample even had the opportunity to work as an intern on Lewis’s 2012 campaign for congressional reelection.
“I remember shortly after [Black Lives Matter] kind of started, he said he was really glad to see young people organizing again, just because that was exactly what he did when he was their age,” Hample said. “I’d assume he’ll address that and talk about the need for civic activism in his speech.”
Hample noted the immense respect the congressman continuously receives in his personal and political endeavors.
“He won the  primary with 81 percent of the vote, so he’s still incredibly popular,” Hample said. “Other Democrats in Congress constantly refer to him as the moral wing of the Democratic Party. He’s one of those few people in either party that when he stands up to say something, everyone listens… I can’t say enough how much I respect him. It was a great experience to work with him.”
Producer of last year’s Black Anthology and senior Lemoine Joseph believes that a message from Lewis will help graduates contextualize their experiences at Washington University and use what they’ve gained from their time to help others—not just themselves.
“[Lewis] is someone who could give you that reminder that when you have this degree, you can use it either to increase your own privilege or you can use it to increase other people’s equity, to make sure that you use this degree and this privilege in the best and most productive manner that you can for society versus increasing the inequity that already exists,” Joseph said.
Joseph added that Lewis’s career was deeply impacted by his experiences in college.
“He was able to translate his sociopolitical awareness that he had in college into a longevity in his political career,” Joseph said. “Even though I want to go into medicine, my time at Wash. U. has been very much so influenced by a lot of things that have happened outside of the Wash. U. bubble, and that’s definitely impacted how I see my career path as a physician going.”
Senior Orchid Abar believes that a message from Lewis will be a powerful reinforcement of many key issues that the University and surrounding communities have faced in recent years.
“It’s a great way to reflect on what we’ve learned as a community about civil rights for the past few years,” Abar said. “Many of us came to Wash. U. not knowing a lot about how civil rights issues are manifesting in present day, but now we’ve all kind of been here together for these real, serious issues. It’s going to be extra significant and meaningful to all of us.”
Additional reporting by Emily Schienvar.