Legacy left by John Lewis continues to inspire Dayton leaders

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

Dayton area leaders called on community members to honor the legacy of Civil Rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis by voting and holding their elected officials accountable.

Lewis — one of the organizers of the Civil Rights Movement who was instrumental in the Selma to Montgomery Marches and the 1963 March on Washington — died Friday. He was 80.

He was a huge champion for the underdog, said Michael Carter, chief diversity officer at Sinclair Community College and senior adviser to the school’s president. Carter met Lewis during a 2016 when the Georgia congressman led a group of young Dayton voters to the Montgomery County Board of Elections for early voting.

“Losing him is like losing living history. We recall the images of him during the Civil Rights Movement, Bloody Sunday and even in Congress,” Carter said. “You’re talking about someone who has been in this fight for 60 plus years.”

Dayton civil rights champion and former, long-time president of Dayton Unit NAACP, Jessie O. Gooding, was among the 250,000 people on the National Mall to hear Lewis and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. Gooding and Lewis would go on from that day in 1963 to form a friendship and see each other numerous times over the years. Gooding said Lewis was a great source of encouragement to continue the fight for racial equality.

Gooding said Lewis’ influence on voter registration in both the North and South deserves large recognition on a national scale.

Former Dayton Mayor Rhine McLin, who in 2002 became Dayton’s first Black female mayor and now serves as the Montgomery County Board of Elections chairwoman, said people need to honor Lewis through action.

“No. 1 — be the consciousness of your government,” McLin said. “That’s what John Lewis was of the Congress, of the people. Basically, hold people accountable that you’re electing to represent you. John Lewis was the epitome of a consciousness.”

She also urged people to exercise their right to vote.

“If the city of Dayton really wanted to honor John Lewis, everyone would register and they would vote in this upcoming election,” Mclin said.

McLin recalled the day Lewis made his Dayton visit and she walked arm and arm with him, admiring his humility and ability to connect with anyone. During his visit, McLin accompanied Lewis to the Funk Music Hall of Fame, along with his fraternity brothers.

“It was so powerful walking down the street with him,” McLin said. “There was some guys working on a telephone pole downtown and we walked over to them and (Lewis) just spoke to them and said, ‘Hi, how you doing?' and it was so, I mean, he didn’t have to do that. He was beloved.”

The recently sworn in President of Central State University, Jack Thomas, pointed out that America has lost two legendary individuals back-to-back after Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, 95, also died on Friday.

“It’s difficult for me to talk about John Lewis without talking about C.T. Vivian,” Thomas said. “I knew C.T. Vivian personally. He was one of the keynote speakers at my inauguration when I was president at another university ... We have lost two legends and they will be greatly missed.”

Lewis grew up about 42 miles from Lowndes, Alabama, where Thomas is from.

“We all have dealt with a lot of inequality kinds of things — racism, hatred, discrimination — and we looked to people like John Lewis to fight many of those battles. I feel that we’ve made some great strides because of our civil rights leaders and others, but we still have such a long way to go.”

In 2002, now president of the Dayton Unit NAACP Derrick Foward was just joining the local chapter when Lewis received the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP’s highest honor awarded annually for the highest achievement of an American of African descent. This year, 18 years later, Foward watched Lewis receive the NAACP Chairman’s Award.

“To have witnessed both those honors to this giant civil rights legend was a true honor that I can say I was in his presence,” Foward said. “The best way to honor John Lewis is to get actively engaged in civic engagement activities ... If you want to honor him, then you want to exercise your right and vote on Nov. 3, 2020, to ensure that equality and justice is truly felt at the polls of America.”

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley recalled Lewis’ 2016 visit to the city and watching the congressman speak to the next generation of African American leaders.

“It was just powerful to watch that and be a fly on the wall during those special moments,” she said.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, in accordance with orders issued by President Trump, ordered Saturday that all Ohio flags be flown at half-staff on all public buildings and grounds throughout the state.

“Fran and I were very saddened to learn this morning of the death of our friend Congressman John Lewis,” DeWine said in a statement Saturday morning. “John Lewis changed America.”

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