Rep. John Lewis in town campaigning for Crist

Rep. John Lewis and Charlie Crist field election questions at USFSP



ST. PETERSBURG — With Election Day fast approaching, civil rights legend Congressman John Lewis was in town to give the Charlie Crist campaign a boost and to speak with students at USF St. Petersburg about the history and importance of voting.

Congressman John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis

“I’m very honored and privileged, frankly, to have a true civil rights icon campaigning with me today,” said former Governor Crist.

Crist told the crowd how U.S. Rep. Lewis, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other non-violent demonstrators during the turbulent Civil Rights era, once crossed over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where he was beaten bloody and senseless and left for dead.

“He is an amazing man,” Crist said, “He is my friend and he is my brother. And he has more courage than I’ve seen in most people I’ve ever met in my life.”

Lewis recounted how in his youth in the rural town of Troy, Ala., there were signs posted everywhere denoting who was allowed to go where, such as “White Men,” “Colored Men,” White Women,” “Colored Women.”

When he asked his elders why that was, he was told that’s just the way it is. They told him not to get in the way and not to get in trouble. In 1956, at the age of 16, when he attempted to get a library card, the librarian told him the library was for whites only and not for “coloreds.”

He never returned to that library until a book signing in 1998 for his book “Walking with the Wind,” he said to applause, before fielding questions in the town hall Q & A.

What do you believe is the biggest civil rights challenges we face today as a country?

One of the biggest civil rights challenges we face today, he said, was to ensure that our children receive the best education they can get.

“Education is a great equalizer,” Lewis remarked, adding that it doesn’t matter whether the children are black, white, Latino, Asian American or Native American, they must be given the very best.

What should the government do to improve civil rights and voting rights in our country?

Lewis said with no hesitation, “When Charlie becomes a member of the House of Representatives, he will be part of that fact because of what he’s been able to do in state to see that voting rights are protected and that people’s civil rights are guaranteed.”

Lewis said we must encourage the next president of the United States to see that the right people are appointed to the United States Supreme Court.

“The court gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act. This is the first major election in 50 years that we will not have the protection of the Voting Rights Act.”

Do you believe civil and voting rights are partisan issues?

Civil rights and voting rights should not be considered partisan issues, Lewis pointed out, adding that the vote is “almost sacred” and is the “most powerful non-violent instrument or tool that we have in our democratic society.”

Why has restoring voting rights for ex-convicts not been a bigger issue?

Lewis called the restrictions that many ex-offenders face concerning their voting rights a “disgrace” and a “violation of human rights.”

Watching Trump encourage violence at his rallies, what was that like for you to experience in this campaign?

Lewis expressed disapproval about Donald Trump’s tendencies to use racist terms and mock people with disabilities.

“That’s not the type of country we want,” he said. “We all live in the same house, the American house.” He paraphrased Dr. King who had said that we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters.

As a Freedom Rider in1961, Lewis and another young man was left bloodied and unconscious at bus station in South Carolina. Years later a man in his 70s and his son in his 40s came to his office on Capitol Hill and confessed that he was one of the people who beat him. He asked for forgiveness. Lewis accepted his apology, forgave him and all three men cried together.

“I think we have to have the capacity and the ability to forgive and to create what Dr. King called the ‘beloved community’ where we recognize and respect the dignity and worth of every human being,” said Lewis.

“The right to vote should be protected and guaranteed,” he said. “One person, one vote.”

Address Amendment 1

“Vote no on 1,” said Crist. “It’s a fraud.”

“Amendment 1 is a fraud. It is put up and advertised as being good for solar energy. Is it not,” he said firmly, adding that it is merely a campaign promoted by the big utility companies.

Florida—the Sunshine State—utilizes less solar energy than the state of New Jersey, Crist explained, because of the stranglehold the utility companies have on state government.

Commenting on Trump’s notion that the election is “rigged” against him should Hillary Clinton win, Lewis said is “just crazy.”

“I’ve followed every presidential election since I was 20 years old—since the election of President Kennedy—and I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s shameful.”

Responding to the notion that young voters are looking for the passion that they felt in the previous two elections but feel it is missing in this election, Lewis offered encouragement to the millennials to get out and make a difference.

“I don’t think anybody can afford to stay home!” Lewis boomed. “If you don’t vote you don’t count. It’s about you but also about your children and their children. We will save this little piece of real estate we call Earth.”

He added that we should aim to make the planet “a little cleaner, a little greener and a little more peaceful for generations yet unborn,” urging everyone to “get that passion!”

He warned that voters must stay vigilant and active even after an election, and cannot simply elect someone to office and then “go on vacation.”

“You’ve got to be involved,” he stressed. “It doesn’t make a difference whether it’s the school board, city council, state legislature. At all levels of government, you have to stay involved.”

The USFSP Student Government Association and the Florida Suncoast Sierra Club sponsored the event.

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