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Slayton: John Lewis At UVM

In the recent sour exchange between President Trump and U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the President actually said that Lewis was “all talk and no action.” And I had to laugh because the life of John Lewis has been all about action. And if you ask me, John Lewis is a genuine American hero, a man all Americans should congratulate for his courageous lifelong fight against bigotry and racism. He knows the long history of racism in this country, and he’s been a major force in opposing it. But apparently, that fight is still not over.

I met and talked with John Lewis a few years ago at the University of Vermont when he came here to receive an honorary degree and give the graduation address. His quiet charisma and strong moral character were instantly apparent. And the speech he gave was a stem-winder — sincere, brilliant, yet down to earth. It was inspirational precisely because of its earthiness and its deep sincerity.

Born the son of an Alabama sharecropper, in his early years, Lewis gave sermons at his local Baptist church. When I met him at UVM, he said he’d taught himself to read the Bible by the age of five, and that he’d practiced his sermons by preaching to the chickens in the family chicken house! He said they would nod and shake their heads. And then he added, "but I never heard any of them say 'Amen!'"

As a young man, Lewis became keenly aware of the inequality and discrimination he and many others in the South were subjected to — simply because of the color of their skin.

So he became an activist. He met Dr. Martin Luther King and soon became a student leader of the movement. He was beaten at drugstore counter sit-ins, arrested and jailed for his beliefs. Finally, at Selma, while marching for the right to vote, Lewis was beaten so savagely by an Alabama State Trooper that he suffered a fractured skull, and there was concern he might die.

But he recovered, became a 14-term Congressman, and is still working to end bigotry and discrimination. His is an exemplary American life, a fact recognized in 2011, when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

I was honored to meet John Lewis and shake his hand. And I hope we’ll all remember his life of courage and his firm belief in human dignity.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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