Congressman John Lewis received the National Council for Jewish Women’s Faith and Humanity Award at the Leadership Gala closing out the 47th NCJW National Convention in Buckhead on March 25.
“Once we realized we were going to convene in Atlanta, we knew we wanted Congressman Lewis to receive the award. He’s always been supportive of NCJW,” said Belinda Lasky, the NCJW director of community engagement. “He’s very connected to the Jewish people, and the Jewish people are very connected to him.”
A documentarian was on site that evening while shooting a piece about the intersection of the black and Jewish communities.
Under a banner of “Shaping the Future, Leading the Way,” an energized constituency of “300 like-minded but not the same” women learned and strategized about being strong voices to effect positive change, said Amanda Glickman, an NCJW marketing and communications associate. It was a fitting for the Atlanta Democratic congressman, who always encourages his audiences to stand up for what’s right and “get into good trouble.”
With a theme of speaking truth to power, close friend Sherry Frank introduced the congressman. The executive director of American Jewish Committee in Atlanta for 25 years, Frank now conducts the monthly “Frankly Speaking” sessions for NCJW’s Atlanta Section.
Frank told of Lewis’ first run for Congress against Julian Bond, another civil rights leader, in 1985. The sons of Frank and Lewis distributed materials and put up yard signs together.
Frank said the people of Atlanta decided not only then, but again for 15 elections and 30 more years, to choose Lewis to represent them in Washington. She noted that in 1982 he was the founding co-chair of the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition, which continues to do important social justice work.
As a freshman congressman, Lewis stood staunchly in support of Israel, even insisting on freedom for the Soviet Jews while on a visit to the Kremlin. Although he was jailed several times while standing up for civil rights — 40 times in the 1960s, five times while in Congress, “and I’ll get arrested again before I leave the Congress” — “he refused to participate in the Million Man March,” Frank said, “because of Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic statements.”
She told of Lewis leading a June 2016 sit-in over gun violence on the House floor, then said: “You, my brother, John Lewis, the beloved conscience of the U.S. Congress, are my hero. You live every day proving that one person can truly make a difference. It is with great love and pride that I present you to the NCJW.”
Outgoing NCJW President Debbie Hoffmann and CEO Nancy Kaufman told Lewis they were thrilled to present their most prestigious award to him in honor of his courage and perseverance in speaking out for the rights of all Americans.
Lewis electrified the receptive crowd with his prosaic delivery and his gravitas.
To rousing applause, he thanked NCJW for the honor of the Faith and Humanity Award, “Sister Sherry” for her kind introduction, and the assembly for all that they do.
“I do want to take just a moment to say thank you. You’ve been good to me. The Jewish community in this nation, and around the world, has been wonderful to me,” Lewis said. “I feel more than lucky. I feel deeply honored and blessed tonight to be in your presence.”
Lewis told of growing up in rural Alabama in the 1940s and ’50s and seeing signs segregating white and colored people. Asking his parents and grandparents why, he was told that’s the way it is, and don’t get in the way — don’t get in trouble.
“But,” Lewis said, “I was inspired to get in trouble. I was inspired to get in the way, and I want to thank each and every one of you, as members of this great organization, for coming together from time to time to get in trouble — good trouble!”
He spoke of women marching all over the world and said it was wonderful “to see so many women get in trouble.”
He recalled Martin Luther King Jr. saying from time to time that there is nothing “more powerful than the marching feet of a determined people.”
“There are forces in American that want to take us back to another time, another era,” to divide us, he said, but “we cannot let that happen.”
In his signature style he said all our foremothers and forefathers came to America in different ships, “but we all are in the same boat now” and must look out for one another, help one another and learn to live together “on this little piece of real estate we call Earth.”
He said we each have an obligation to leave things “a little cleaner and a little greener for the generation yet unborn. … We must look out for all humanity.”
He implored the women of NCJW to be brave, bold and courageous.
“You, the women, must lead” and must encourage other women to run for elected office, he said. With an overwhelmingly female crowd, that statement brought down the house.
In closing, Lewis said: “We have to get people to do the right thing. … When you see something that is not fair, not right, not just, you have a moral obligation and a mandate to say something, to do something, and continue to speak truth to power.”