A Message from Dr. Forrest E. Harris, Sr., president of American Baptist College
NASHVILLE, TN — It is with great pleasure that I congratulate the American Baptist College family — administrators, faculty, staff, students, and alumni — as well as the entire Metropolitan Nashville community for celebrating a giant of a man last month: Representative John Robert Lewis.
This great Congressman is a true example of Heeding the Call, Defining the Work,
and Transforming the World. He came to American Baptist College as a 17-year-old from Troy, Alabama, and graduated in 1961. He had become a disciple of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after listening to him on the radio and exchanging letters with him. Social justice was deeply imbedded in his DNA, and after graduating from high school he wanted to integrate Troy State University, a predominantly white college. His parents were fearful of his planned act, and Dr. King encouraged him to instead attend American Baptist College in Nashville. He did, and wow — what a change took place!
As a student at ABC, Lewis became associated with C.T. Vivian, an older student, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, and
Julius Scruggs. They all became leaders in the non-violent campaign to desegregate downtown Nashville and in the larger Civil Rights Movement. All were from American Baptist College. They learned in class together, they socialized together, they ate together, they focused on the Bible together, and they protested together. With the guidance of James Lawson, a Vanderbilt Divinity School student who taught them the tenets of non-violence and civil disobedience, they became a part of a mighty movement. They were not aware of the depth and breadth of their actions at the time; they just believed in a better way of life and were willing to fight for it and die for it. And we must never forget that, in the Movement, many did die.
Diane Nash and other students from Fisk University were also intrinsically
involved in this commitment to a valued life for people of color. Tennessee State University also had students fighting for their rights. They would not and could not give in nor give up. They were not trying to be heroes and sheroes; they were fighting for justice for everyone.
All of these leaders in the Nashville movement became greater and significant leaders in the world. They became outstanding elected officials, preachers, teachers, and community activists. Two of them, Congressman Lewis and Rev. Vivian, were recipients of the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. These two giants of history died on the same day, less than 12 hours apart, Friday, July 17, 2020.
A year after their passing, the city of Nashville, in partnership with American
Baptist College, recognized John Lewis in a huge and loving manner. American Baptist planned a stirring memorial celebration. Led by the Minority Caucus of the Metropolitan Council and Council Lady At-Large Zulfat Suara, the city championed the cause of Fifth Avenue in downtown Nashville being renamed Rep. John Lewis Way. The renaming is appropriate as this was the street where Woolworths, Kresge, and other stores were located where the lunch counter sit-ins took place. Additionally, there was a ceremonial march, a historical marker installed, and a culminating program that featured youth, Civil Rights activists including the unconquerable 93-year old Rev. James Lawson, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, and many more.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the American Baptist College staff, especially Dr. Phyllis Qualls, vice president for Institutional Advancement, who led the charge for the memorial celebration, and her immediate staff: Andre’ Trice, Jeremiah Parks, Josh Shaw, and Jonae Woods. First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, hosted the memorial celebration. Other churches, including Clark Memorial and Gordon Memorial United Methodist churches, where Lawson’s trainings also took place; and other organizations, including the Chi Boule and Phi
Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., played a role in the celebration. We also are indebted to the Minority Caucus of the Metropolitan Council, Hands on Nashville, the Downtown Partnership, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation, and the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, as well as other elected officials and numerous volunteers and organizations.
The weekend celebrating Rep. John Lewis was glorious to my soul. My spirit has been reignited, my pride renewed, and my love of people revived because justice never sleeps. The conclusion of the weekend’s activities did not end the celebration; its purpose was to begin anew, with a fierce charge to ”Get in to Good Trouble; Necessary Trouble,“ ”Educate to Liberate,“ ”Lift Up,“ ‘Pull Down Barriers to Freedom,“ ”Fight for Our Human Rights,“ ”Work in Solidarity,“ ”Say What Needs to Be Said,“ ”Love Each Other,“ and, above all else, “Pray That the Liberating God of All People and Cultures be Glorified.”
It is with sincere appreciation that I extend my heartfelt thanks.