Congressman John Lewis Speaks at 20th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership & Public Policy Forum

April 18, 2017

On March 30, U.S. Representative John Lewis gave a rousing speech to an audience of over 650 in Miller Theatre. Named for New York City’s 106th—and first African American—mayor, the David N. Dinkins Leadership & Public Policy Forum has provided a vehicle for focus and dialogue around the dynamic elements of urban policies, programs, and initiatives for twenty years.

Lewis’s speech was entitled “Our Struggle Is a Struggle to Redeem the Soul of America.” He described how as a child he questioned segregation only to be told “that’s the way it is,” “don’t get into trouble,” and “don’t get in the way.” He recalled his teachers encouraging him to read; since he had access to very few books, he read newspapers, from which he learned about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and others who inspired him to find “a way to get in the way,” to get into “good trouble, necessary trouble.” And, Lewis announced, to enthusiastic applause, he has been “getting into trouble ever since.”

The talk focused on Lewis’s belief that “when we see something that is not right, not fair, not just, we have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate to speak up, speak out, and get in the way.” Lewis was arrested 40 times during the 1960s and five more times while serving in Congress, most recently for demonstrating on the Capitol grounds to support an effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Recalling how organizers and activists worked together to fight segregation in the1950s and 1960s, organizing millions of people around the country without the Internet and social media, he reminded the audience to “stand up, speak up, speak out, be brave, be courageous, be bold, and be hopeful; and in the process be happy, don’t let anything get you down, don’t get lost in a sea of despair, keep the faith, keep your eyes on the prize, and keep moving.” Lewis also gave a shout-out to fellow civil rights pioneer Harry Belafonte, who was in the audience.

Mayor Dinkins, now a professor of professional practice at SIPA, introduced Congressman Lewis. Lee C. Bollinger and SIPA Dean Merit E. Janow also spoke. The evening ended with a panel discussion entitled “Reframing Economic and Political Citizenship,” moderated by Ester R. Fuchs (SIPA), with speakers Michael A. Nutter (98th mayor of Philadelphia and the first David N. Dinkins Professor of Professional Practice in Urban and Public Affairs); David Goodman (President, Andrew Goodman Foundation); Verna Eggleston (Head of Women’s Economic Development, Bloomberg Philanthropies); and Michael Waldman (President, Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law).