Education

Civil rights icon John Lewis chats with Los Banos students, says he plans to visit Merced County

A student at San Luis High School talks with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., through a Skype video call Tuesday afternoon in the classroom of English, art and computer literacy teacher Katherine Malcolm.
A student at San Luis High School talks with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., through a Skype video call Tuesday afternoon in the classroom of English, art and computer literacy teacher Katherine Malcolm. vshanker@losbanosenterprise.com

Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis on Tuesday told San Luis High School students he sometimes thinks he was more effective as an activist on the ground than as a member of Congress.

“Seeing what I’m seeing today, I feel like I’m reliving my life over again,” he said in a Skype call that had students in awe. “I’m still speaking up, getting in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

The 76-year-old Democrat made recent headlines for saying he doesn’t see Donald Trump as a “legitimate” president, sparking a Twitter response from Trump on Jan. 14 characterizing Lewis as “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results.”

The tweet prompted strong rebuttals from Republicans and Democrats, many of whom noted Lewis’ integral role in the civil rights movement.

Lewis didn’t directly mention the spat with Trump on Tuesday as he took questions from students about the history and future of civil rights.

In addition to treating students with the rare interview, he sprung a surprise: He said he hopes to visit San Luis High School in person soon. Students drowned him out with cheers.

“It’s exciting ’cause seeing him on screen is really cool,” senior Natalia Delgado said. “So having him come here would be even better.”

Lewis is one of the famed “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, according to a biography on his congressional website.

He has organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters, volunteered in “Freedom Rides” that challenged segregation, and was severely beaten by mobs and arrested by police for challenging Jim Crow laws in the South, the biography states.

Much of Lewis’ civil rights legacy is displayed in his best-selling graphic-novel trilogy, “March,” which details his journey from the son of sharecroppers near Troy, Ala., to the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Caity Malcolm, a San Luis teacher, said she read the graphic novel last year and it inspired her to reach out to Lewis’ office over the summer.

“I thought I would try to bring him to the students,” said Malcolm, who noted that the discussion was set up on Nov. 30, before the recent spat between Lewis and Trump.

Many students read the graphic novel and some brought copies with them for the talk, including senior Kira Garcia, who asked Lewis to describe why it is important for people to get involved in the fight for civil rights.

Lewis said it was extremely important for young people to get involved, telling the students they have an enormous tool at their fingertips with Facebook and other social media.

“I think he was pretty right,” Garcia said. “We really have more access.”

Lewis also harkened back to his childhood and how he was inspired by the nonviolent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and got involved with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

Lewis was also asked how much progress he has seen. He noted that there are no more signs that say “white boys, white girls” or “colored boys, colored girls.”

“These signs are great,” he said. “The only place is you see it is a book or a museum.”

Lewis also remembered the inauguration of President Barack Obama and how he cried tears of joy during the celebration, charting how far the civil rights movement has come since the days of segregation.

San Luis Principal Chan Meas said the high school, a continuation school that serves as an alternative education for students in the Los Banos Unified School District, tries to implement innovative learning experiences, such as the Skype chat, for students.

“This is a big thing,” Meas said. “I hope he finds the time to visit San Luis High School.”

Meas said he also hopes the students learned that the civil rights movement is not just for African Americans.

After the Skype call, students were chattering about the discussion they had with Lewis.

“I think it’s really cool he was able to (Skype),” Garcia said. “I think if he comes here, we will have a lot more questions.”

Vikaas Shanker: 209-826-3831, ext. 6562

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