A Celebration of Rep. John R. Lewis at Ryman Auditorium

Freedom Riders interstate bus captured in front of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill. Photo by Kaitlynn White

By Katelynn White

NASHVILLE, TN — Rep. John Robert Lewis, a civil rights activist, and pioneer devoted his life to protecting human rights. “I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life,” the civil rights pioneer once said. 

The event was a formal celebration took place at the Ryman Auditorium on July 17. It included a video of Lewis speaking at Emory University. “Use your education, use your professors, use your research, use what you have to make our world a better place,” said the late civil rights activist. 

Henry Lewis told the crowd how he remembered his late older brother. “He used to tell me, it wasn’t about him, it was about making a difference. That he wanted the world to be a better place than it was when he came into the world,” said the younger Lewis. 

Lewis founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The committee launching was the start of his activist journey. Lewis led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville. He joined the Freedom Riders to fight segregation for interstate travel and was brutally beaten. 

Lewis’s fellow friend and mentor, Rev. James Lawson spoke at the celebration and provided the crowd with historical

Rev. James Lawson is captured speaking at the celebration for his mentee and friend, John R. Lewis.

information about the lunch sit-ins. 

Before taking his seat, he addressed Governor Bill Lee. “I do not know how you were raised; I have no doubt that your parents loved you and greeted you with great joy when you were born. They sought in every way how to love you, but somehow you have lived in this world and in the state of Tennessee and allowed a hole to move down the middle of your spirit.”

Mayor John Cooper presented keys to the city to Nashville Civil Rights icons before Former Vice President Al Gore briefly spoke during the celebration and talked about the effect Lewis had on him. “Before I ever met him, I felt his impact,” Gore said. 

Lewis began his political career after being elected to Congress in 1986.

Gore said, “I’m proud that Nashville has claimed to be one of the real centers of the civil rights movement in the United States of America. We respect Atlanta and some of those other places, but Nashville is where the momentum really gains critical mass, and when they were almost out of gas down there in Alabama, there were all those buses that came from Nashville, and all those students revived that movement and brought it a second breath.”

Throughout the event, family, friends, and community members spoke highly about Lewis. At times videos played to help the audience remember the past actions and words of Lewis.

Lawson ended the celebration with these final words, “I urge you firmly use the gift of love that’s in you. Continue the struggle to turn our nation in the right direction.”