A Teacher’s Memories of Congressman John Lewis

The following guest post is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools librarian and the 2013-2015 Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Rebecca Newland and Representative John Lewis, 2014

August 28, 2013, was my third day as Teacher in Residence. The day was also the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. U.S. Representative John Lewis spoke in the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress to open the Library’s exhibition A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. Dignitaries and Library staff sat in rows on the marble floor while additional staff stood lining the edges of the crowd and the stairs. The atmosphere was alive in anticipation of hearing a hero of the Civil Rights movement speak in person.

As I listened, I considered the life Rep. Lewis had led. On August 28, 1963, when he spoke at the March, he was 23 years old. He worked for the rights of his fellow humans across the nation for decades before being elected to Congress in 1986. History stood in front of me, in the shape of a leader who had chosen a path and never wavered in his pursuit of equality despite violence and opposition at every turn. Now he was the only person still living to have spoken at that event.

Three days later, I was doing my grocery shopping and heard a buzz in the produce section. I looked up to see Rep. Lewis with a basket over his arm, greeting people who approached to thank him. Others whispered, “Who is that?” to fellow shoppers while glancing over to see what was happening. This inspirational man was in the community.

When I told this story to colleagues, they joked that Rep. Lewis and I must have a connection, so I sought a meeting with this venerable man. On January 14, 2014, I was invited to the his office in the Cannon House Office Building. I took along two books I was hoping to have signed: my copy of his autobiography Walking in the Wind, which I had marked to remember things I wanted to ask about if offered the opportunity, and a copy of his graphic novel memoir March for a colleague’s daughter.  Nervous, but exhilarated, I hoped to speak to the Congressman and his aide and co-author Andrew Aydin about writing for the Library’s education blog about his experiences as a way to help teachers bring his work to their students.

As the picture illustrates, I was invited into his office where the images on the wall showing his work across the decades reinforced for me why Rep. Lewis is a national hero. Everything about the experience is etched in my mind and heart.

During this time of protests and civil action in the United States there are a number of ways to introduce students to the work of Rep. John Lewis and others through the Library’s resources:

In losing Rep. Lewis, we have lost a man whose life’s work was to defeat injustice across our nation. By talking about him and his work with young people, we can keep alive the spirit of compassion and non-violence he espoused.

 

Teaching Civic Ideals and the Writing Process using Primary Sources

The Rosa Parks Papers at the Library of Congress testify to her courage, humility, and depth. They also reflect how she inspired others. Evaluating those documents based on their historical context, word choice, and revisions can deepen students’ understanding of her life and impact on the civil rights movement.

Teaching Civic Ideals Using Primary Sources: Federalism and the Origin of Federal Air Pollution Policy 

Environmental case studies such as Donora, Pennsylvania, offer students the opportunity to evaluate the system of federalism in context of a historical event. In addition, this event may stretch students’ understanding of when and why society began to focus on the impact of air pollution on the environment.