Congressman John Lewis Inspires Graduates at Berea College Commencement

Congressman John R. Lewis addresses the graduates, Commencement 2017

U.S. Congressman and noted Civil Rights leader John Lewis urged the 265 members of Berea’s 2017 graduating class to “find a way to get in the way” of social injustices.

Lewis, who represents Georgia’s 5th District, encouraged the graduates to honor Berea College’s heritage of equality for all people. “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you must stand up, speak up, and speak out,” Lewis stated. “You have a duty and a moral obligation given to you by the visionary founders of this college, who saw the need to build an inclusive interracial, coeducational community in 1855, before the end of slavery and the beginning of the Civil War.  We are still struggling against those same enemies of justice today.”

Rep. Lewis is widely known as one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. He is particularly recognized for helping to organize one of the most pivotal moments of the Civil Rights Movement, the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Lewis led around 600 peaceful protestors at the march, demanding an end to discrimination in voter registration. Despite being brutally attacked at the march on what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and enduring more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries over the years, Rep. Lewis remains a dedicated advocate for nonviolent, peaceful demonstrations. During his time in Congress, he has used his platform to speak out about the need for accessible education for everyone, health care for all, and equal civil rights for all disenfranchised groups.

During the Commencement ceremony, Rep. Lewis received an honorary degree from Berea College. In addition to conferring degrees to the 265 graduates, several Berea-specific awards were made to faculty and students. Kye M. Hoover was awarded 2017 Student Employee of the Year for the State of Kentucky by the Midwest Association of Student Employment Administrators (MASEA).  Joan M. Pauly was awarded 2017 Outstanding Labor Supervisor of the Year. Sarah Blank, Assistant Professor of Anatomy and Physiology, received the Paul C. Hager Award for Excellence in Advising. Michael Morris, Fire and Occupational Safety Manager, was presented the Elizabeth Perry Miles Award for Community Service. Michael Berheide, Professor of Political Science, received Berea’s highest award for faculty – the Seabury Award for Excellence in Teaching. Top student awards went to Pamela Alejandra Villafranca Seidel and Kyaw Hpone Myint, who received the Hilda Welch Wood Achievement Award and the T.J. Wood Achievement Award, respectively.

Rep. Lewis, who was born near Troy, Alabama, earned a bachelor’s degree in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University. He is also a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities throughout the United States. He is the co-author of the #1 New York Times best-selling graphic novel memoir trilogy “MARCH,” written with Andrew Aydin. The “MARCH” series is used in schools across the country to teach the Civil Rights Movement to the next generation of young activists. Lewis also wrote “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change,” which won the 2012 NAACP Image Award for Best Literary Work-Biography. His biography, published in 1998, is entitled “Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement,” written with Michel D’Orso.

Earlier in the day, a Nurses’ Pinning Ceremony took place in Phelps Stokes Chapel. Dr. Betty Olinger, a 1969 Berea College alumna and nursing major, was the keynote speaker. Olinger is the former Chair of the School of Nursing at Kentucky State University, where she was responsible for administrative operations, budget, policy, student records, and accreditation processes, among others. Previously, she served as Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs at Kentucky State University; Division Director for the Department of Public Health; and Program Coordinator for the SCIENCE FOCUS program at Berea College. The Pinning ceremony recognized graduates of Berea’s Nursing Program, which is the oldest college-affiliated nurse training program west of the Allegheny Mountains.

During the Baccalaureate ceremony, also held in Phelps Stokes Chapel, Reverend Dr. Debra Wallace-Padgett, an elected Bishop of the United Methodist Church serving the North Alabama Conference, addressed the graduates and their families on “Singing God’s Song.” According to her, doing so comes with Christian living. She stated, “As we sing it day by day, the lyrics grow in power, the rhythm is unstoppable and others start humming the tune. It makes an impact, not only on us, but on those who hear us sing it.” She cited an example from the life of Francis of Assisi, who said, “It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach unless we preach everywhere as we walk.” Building on that example, Bishop Wallace-Padgett said, “The lives we live and our behavior are closely watched. We diminish the impact of going anywhere to sing God’s Song unless we sing it everywhere we go!”

Bishop Wallace-Padgett is a 1979 Berea College graduate, earning a bachelor’s degree in Physical Education. In addition to her degree from Berea, she also has a master’s degree in Christian Education from Scarritt College and Graduate School, a Master of Divinity degree from Lexington Theological Seminary, and a Doctorate of Ministry from Asbury Theological Seminary. Before being elected a Bishop, Rev. Dr. Wallace-Padgett served as Lead Pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Bishop Wallace-Padgett has served the church for many years, including six years as District Superintendent of the Prestonsburg District and two years as Dean of the Cabinet of the Kentucky Conference.


To watch the Commencement ceremony in its entirety, view the livestream link here: https://livestream.com/accounts/5135608/events/7138419