Congressman John Lewis Tells Bates Grads to Embrace School's Tradition of Social Justice

May 29, 2016

LEWISTON, Maine_ Civil Rights leader from Alabama, and congressman for Georgia, John R. Lewis, highlighted the far-reaching effect that colleges such as Bates have played in progressing civil rights in America. He talked of one of his own heroes,  educator Benjamin Mays, who was the son of former slaves. 

"But it was Bates College he said that gave him the tools he needed to be emancipated." Lewis told the assembled crowd on Sunday, "This is the great power of education."

Mays, Bates Class of 1920, went on to become president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. was a student. Lewis told the assembled crowd that without Mays' example as a passionate educator and de-segregationist, King might have taken a different path, and with it the entire civil rights movement.

Now, he says, it's the Class of 2016's turn to act for the good of humankind.

"You must stand up. You have a moral obligation to speak up and speak out, when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just? You move your feet."

 It was the 150th graduation for the private liberal arts school, founded in 1855 by abolitionist statesmen.

"There were just eight graduates in the Bates class of 1867, and they were all men." said Bates College President Clayton Spencer noting at Sunday's graduation, how the school has changed over the decades. Spencer says the school at the time was co-educational, but no women were among the first graduating class. This year, students of all genders and nationalities are present. "There are 462 seniors who will receive degrees today representing 32 states plus the District of Columbia, and 43 countries."

 All eight graduate in 1867 were from Maine.

Spencer noted that of the 462 graduates in 2016, 42 are the first in their families to graduate college, 67% had studied abroad, 92 are double majors, with three triple majors.

Commencement speaker Lewis told the class of 2016 to enjoy graduation day, but be ready to roll up their sleeves tomorrow to tackle the problems of the present, which include, he says, immigration, environment, and an ongoing struggle for human equality.

"We have a right to know what is in the water we drink, what is in the food we eat, what is in the air we breathe. You have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate when you leave here to go out and seek justice for all."