Remembering Late Rep. John Lewis

Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity’s 1998 Convention saw guests, alumni, and undergraduate brothers gather in Indianapolis to honor a successful year for the fraternity. The Educational Foundation met prior to discuss which non-Pilam affiliated public figure embodied the qualities needed to be awarded the Pi Lambda Phi Humanitarian Award. Alumnus Brother, and U.S. Representative from New York, Eliot Engel (NY Alpha Mu Chapter at Lehman College), would nominate his congressional colleague, Rep. John Lewis, to honor Lewis’ lifelong commitment to civil rights and the elimination of prejudice. Lewis, a brother of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., won and was presented the distinguished award by his proud colleague, brother Engel.

Vincent Marbury C.K. (VA Omicron Zeta Chapter at Virginia Tech), was lucky enough to be in attendance. Brother Marbury recently reflected on that moment saying, “the second that Rep. Lewis began speaking, the entire room went silent in awe from his accomplishments; you could hear a pin drop”, continuing “…he had a commanding and charismatic voice and presence as a speaker that demanded respect.”

David Temple (VA Omega Alpha Chapter at the University of Virginia ’69; Big Pi Award recipient ‘12) memorialized Rep. Lewis’ memory: “As a young, black Richmond teen, I and a small cohort of other black teens, worked on mid 60s weekends to desegregate downtown restaurants. We had been invited by and followed the non-violent teachings of the John Lewis’s Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which taught non-response to police or citizen attacks, or their spit, liquid waste, beer, racial taunts etc. John Lewis was a chief disciple of this approach and practice of falling limp, into fetal position, heads covered. I saw it work firsthand against spewing, crimson-faced rage, suddenly disarmed by passive non-response to physical attacks, laced with profound hate and threat. On July 23, 2020 after more than one-year of deliberation and public engagement, the Fairfax County [Virginia] Public Schools Board voted to change the Robert E. Lee High School-created in 1958 to affirm Virginia’s policy of “Massive Resistance” to the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 Kansas Board of Education schools desegregation decision-now renamed the John R. Lewis High School”. Temple went on to say “I am grateful to have learned from him as a teen. I am grateful to have been close to the name-changing process. Grateful to witness his lifelong, unerring homage to non-violent racial change, one that resulted in a peaceful, jubilant end to this 72-years old chapter of VA neo-confederate history…coming exactly six days after his death.”

Lewis once said, “If you are seeing something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.” The spirit of his words reminds us of what Werner, Fisher, and Levy bravely chose to do 125 years ago. It’s no wonder why John Lewis was chosen to receive the Pi Lambda Phi Humanitarian award. Lewis will be deeply missed by many, but the spirit that drove his life’s work will continue to inspire those that are willing to stand against the inequalities that exist within our world.