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Civil rights advocate U.S. Rep. John Lewis urges graduates to "get in the way"


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U.S. Rep. John Lewis addresses the members of the Class of 2013 during Commencement Sunday. Lewis received an honorary doctor of laws degree. President Stephen C. Ainlay delivers his charges to graduates. Clifford J. Tabin, professor and chairman of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, received an honorary doctor of science degree. In her speech, student speaker Kadiatou Tubman told her classmates that "We are fortunate that Union has provided us the most essential things on this continuous march forward: the tools to build bridges, but most importantly, the patience, courage and knowledge to cross them." The Schenectady Pipe Band kicks off the Commencement ceremony.
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Nearly 50 years after he helped organize the historic march on Washington, a defining moment in the civil rights movement, U.S. Rep. John Lewis urged members of the Class of 2013 to "find a way to get in the way."

"You must leave here and get in trouble," said Lewis, a 13-term congressman from Atlanta who, at age 23, was a keynote speaker at the march in August 1963 where 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. Lewis is the last surviving speaker from the march.

"You must get in good trouble, necessary trouble. You must help change America, you must help change the world. With your degree, you are prepared to go out there and speak up and speak out."

A total of 472 students received their degrees during the College's 219th commencement on Hull Plaza Sunday.

In a 19-minute speech that was part sermon, part history lesson, Lewis recounted growing up as the son of sharecroppers in Alabama, where he attended segregated public schools and became inspired by the words and deeds of people like King and Rosa Parks.

He also shared the defining moment, when, in March 1965, he helped lead hundreds in a peaceful march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. In what became known as Bloody Sunday, marchers were met by Alabama state troopers with billy clubs and tear gas. Lewis suffered a fractured skull in the violent confrontation. The televised images of protesters being beaten jolted the nation and were the catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act several months later.

"I'm not bitter or hostile," said Lewis, a longtime champion of nonviolent protest, of the beatings he and others endured for the cause. "I don't have any hatred. Hate is too heavy a burden to bear."

He told members of the class to be bold, courageous and daring as they embark on the next part of their own journey.

"Be a headlight, not a taillight," he said. "The world is waiting for you. The 21st century is waiting for you. When you leave, don't just walk with the wind. Walk with the spirit of history and walk and live with the spirit of Union College."

Lewis, who received an honorary doctor of laws degree, was introduced by Melinda Lawson, senior lecturer of history. Each year, students in Lawson's class, The Civil Rights Movement, are assigned to read Lewis's autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. The book is also required reading for those who participate in the Civil Rights Public History Mini-term, a nine-city, seven-state tour following the path of the movement Lawson leads each December.

Also receiving an honorary degree was Clifford J. Tabin, professor and chairman of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. Considered one of the world leaders in developmental biology, Tabin was nominated by Nicole Theodosiou Napier, an assistant professor of biology. The recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology, Tabin received an honorary doctor of science degree.

In his charge to the graduates, President Stephen C. Ainlay cited a number of their accomplishments. He reminded the class to embrace Lewis's commitment to social transformation, and voiced the hope that Union helped facilitate an internal transformation.

"All evidence suggests that your class, the 'great' Class of 2013, has already translated inner convictions into actions and that you have and will, indeed, make the world a better place," Ainlay said.

For the full text of Ainlay’s remarks, click here.

In his baccalaureate remarks on Saturday, Ainlay called on graduates to savor all that life has to offer.  In recounting Lewis's remarkable story, Ainlay urged the class to appreciate that they are in the presence of one of the nation's most significant figures.

"You will be able to tell your children and grandchildren that John Lewis, a true American hero, the maker of American history, spoke at your graduation," he said.

For text of Ainlay's baccalaureate remarks Saturday, click here.

In recalling Lewis's march across the bridge in Selma on a Sunday in 1965, student speaker Kadiatou Tubman reminded her classmates of their own journey.

"We know that one Sunday can change so many lives as well as the course of history," said Tubman, a history major with a minor in Africana Studies from Far Rockaway, N.Y. "And today, we are changing the course of history on this Sunday. We, as a class, are living proof that bridges can and will be built, and they will be crossed for a better tomorrow.

"We are fortunate that Union has provided us the most essential things on this continuous march forward: the tools to build bridges, but most importantly, the patience, courage and knowledge to cross them."

For the full text of Tubman's remarks, click here.

Two members of the Class of 2013 received public recognition: Class valedictorian Meredith Adamo, a biology major with a minor in anthropology from Oneonta, N.Y, and salutatorian Ceillie Clark-Keane, an English and classics major from Whitehall, N.Y.

Also acknowledged at the ceremony was Sean Murphy, a psychology major who died in a car crash in March. His parents, Stephen and Coreen, were presented with his degree posthumously.

For a list of the Class of 2013, click here.

For a list of Prize Day winners, click here.

To learn where nine seniors, the newest group of Minerva Fellows, will go after graduation, click here.

To view a list of previous Commencement speakers, click here.