In a partnership with Danny Morrison Media, Bakersfield College celebrated the life of late Congressman John Lewis with a special tribute featuring reenactments of his speeches, musical performances, and faculty and community leaders’ thoughts on his most important contributions and lasting legacy on July 29.
The live stream began with a few words from co-presenter Danny Morrison. He shared the longing he once had to meet the “political legend,” and his heartbreak over his death. He is devastated because he believes Lewis’ work was not done, and he is especially sad that the Black Lives Matter movement lost a pivotal leader just as it is finally starting to get some traction.
“It just breaks my heart that he’s not [going to]be here to see us change. To finally change,” he said.
Morrison pledged that he will honor Lewis by fighting the good fight “because he is the legacy that we will judge ourselves by, from here to eternity.”
The rest of the hour-long program focused on Lewis’ many accomplishments as a civil rights leader, activist, and politician. Speakers memorialized Lewis with a discussion about his political career, musical performances throughout, and readings of his most significant speeches.
Julian West, a program lead at Bakersfield College, delivered 23-year-old John Lewis’ 1963 speech at the March on Washington. As West recited the speech about love, brotherhood, and true peace, black and white photos pertinent to the speech’s message came across the screen. Later that evening, social pastor Traco Matthews recited a speech Lewis gave on the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches.
Community member Nina Grace performed “We Shall Overcome” to commemorate Lewis’ fight to end segregation. Images of previous division and photos of Lewis as he fought for equality accompanied her soulful performance.
Community members, Michael Bowers, Cindy Pollard, and several BC professors, including Keith Wolaridge, Jamal Wright, R. Allen Bolar, joined the live stream to share some Lewis’ most important biographical, historical, and political contributions and accomplishments. They also revealed what they thought was his most important contribution to society.
History professor Oliver Rosales began the discussion about Lewi’s significance in shaping today’s society. He explained that John Lewis dedicated his life to social justice and civil rights. According to Rosales, Lewis played a pivotal role in bringing young adults from the north to the Jim Crow south. With power in numbers, they could force the country to change and end segregation. Rosales explained that Lewis’ passion for social justice led him to a career in politics.
“Congressman Lewis spent a lifetime organizing for social justice and civil rights, and this catapulted him into public service and into public office. And he was able to combine his touch for grassroots organizing with policymaking. He was able to build coalitions across racial and ethnic lines to advance social justice for all,” he said.
Personally, Rosales gave him the most credit for his work in creating the National Museum for African Americans.
“It’s a powerful exposition on the 400-year history of Africans in America and the creation of African-American identity really from the time of slavery to the civil war, through the Jim Crow period, and most importantly thought the era of civil rights, which he was a large part of,” Rosales said. “And furthermore, it shows really the breadth and scope of the contributions of African-Americans to American society, including music and food and culture. And for that, every American owes a great thank you to Congressman Lewis.”
Umoja ASTEP coordinator Paula Parks revealed that her program’s curriculum at BC would have focused on Lewis’s contribution to voting rights and dismantling Confederate symbols. She reminded the audience that confederate symbols still exist in Bakersfield. According to Parks, South High School’s mascot is a confederate symbol, and younger students in that neighborhood attend Plantation Elementary.
“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to say something. You have to do something. And not just when it affects us personally, not just when it’s convenient,” she said. “We need to speak out. We need to advocate for ourselves. We need to be an ally for others. We need to support the voting rights advancement act. We need to vote, and we need to dismantle racist symbols across the country as well as right here in Bakersfield.”
Just before former BC student, Jaimi Banks ended the night with her rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” West appeared once again to share how Bakersfield College would be honoring Lewis from this moment.
“ We [BC] feel as if we are bound by our social responsibility to not only honor the legacy of John Lewis and what he did but also to continue that legacy for equality… We will continue to make progress on student equality, and we will not stop our efforts until our ultimate goal of educational and economic equality has been reached.”