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Stand up for civil rights: U.S. Rep. Lewis

U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D−Ga.), a man who forever changed race in America, told graduates at Queens College last Thursday to brush aside the status quo and never stop fighting for a humanity that deserves something more than hatred and bigotry.

“Find a way to stand up for what is right, what is good,” Lewis told the crowd of more than 2,200 graduates and 11,000 parents, family and friends gathered at the Queens College quad.

Lewis, the commencement ceremony’s keynote speaker, was called a “giant upon whose shoulders we all stand” by President Barack Obama in the letter Obama sent to Queens College for the graduation. Lewis, born in 1940 and who grew up in rural Alabama, was arrested more than 40 times throughout his involvement in the civil rights movement.

Lewis received an honorary doctorate from Queens College. He advised students to make a stand for social justice as did the late Queens College student Andrew Goodman, one of three civil rights workers killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964.

Civil rights activists Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner had been registering black voters in Mississippi in 1964. The three had been arrested for speeding and were shot and killed by the Ku Klux Klan after the three had been released from jail. The clock tower in Queens College’s quad is named after the three young men.

“I would ask my parents why there was segregation, and they’d say that’s the way it is and don’t get in the way,” Lewis said. “I got in the way. Students, you need to get in the way.”

Human rights and civil rights dominated many of the speeches given by officials and students at the ceremony. Along with Lewis, Queens College recognized Harold Holzer of the class of 1969, an Abraham Lincoln scholar who has written and edited more than 30 books about the former president and the Civil War. Holzer received the Queens College President’s Medal.

Dozens of Queens College alumni who had been active members of the civil rights movement in the 1960s attended the ceremony.

“Progress: There is never enough of it and it never comes fast enough, but make no mistake, it is real,” Queens College President James Muyskens said. “Just last week the mostly white citizens of Philadelphia, Miss., elected their first black mayor. That is remarkable progress.”

“Breaking down the barriers that hinder our progress can seem like an impossible task, but as John Lewis, Henry Holzer and our proud group of 1960s graduates here can attest, there is nothing truer or greater you can do with your lives,” Muyskens went on to say.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D−N.Y.), U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D−Forest Hills) and Borough President Helen Marshall all congratulated the graduates.

Steven Appel, the student commencement speaker and editor−in−chief of the college’s student newspaper, The Knight News, told students they are graduating “at a great time for justice.”

“The actions of those who participated in the civil rights movement have taught us we can change the world for the better,” Appel said. “Let us shatter the walls of convention and strive to serve others rather than ourselves.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e−mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 174.

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