By Maria Saporta
Georgia Tech has found a way to capture Atlanta’s spirit with its annual Ivan Allen Jr. Prize in Social Courage award — by linking the greatness of the city’s former mayor with some of the most notable leaders of today.
This year, the prize went to John Lewis, a Civil Rights leader who has been representing Georgia’s 5th District in Congress since 1987. The prize was given on April 4, the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which added to the poignancy of the award and its historical significance.
In fact, Georgia Tech’s Ivan College of Liberal Arts has made the awarding of the prize a major educational event that takes place over two days to give students an insight of the leadership that has set Atlanta apart from other cities over the years.
This year, the event featured the symmetry of the lives of the late Mayor Allen and Congressman Lewis. When Allen emerged as the most progressive mayor in South during the 1960s, Lewis was one of the youngest leaders in the Civil Rights movements — helping organize the 1963 March on Washington.
Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders who challenged segregation on interstate buses. He was arrested at least 40 times. And he nearly died after being beaten while marching peacefully across the Edmond Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala.
During a symposium before the lunch, Lewis said non-violence was paramount to the movement.
“I accepted non-violence in keeping with our faith — the means must be consistent with the end that we are seeking,” Lewis said. “It’s the ‘Beloved Community.’ It’s the way of peace, the way of love and the way of non-violence.”
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a fellow Civil Rights leaders, said Lewis “is the best example alive today that I know of moral power. There is economic power and political power. John has moral power.”
Lewis said that young people today must study the movement — its lessons and philosophy. For example, they always had to be well dressed to show the country “the contrast between us and the people who were attacking us.”
Although his parents had brought him up to stay out of trouble, Lewis knew he had to be willing to go to jail. “It was part of what I had to do to dramatize the issue,” he said.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a journalist who was one of the first African-American students to attend the University of Georgia, said she had been brought up with a strong sense of dignity that helped her withstand the insults that greeted her when she arrived on campus.
“Our parents and our teachers couldn’t give us first-class citizenship, but they could give us a first-class sense of ourselves,” she said.
A student asked about the conflict between business and the needs of society.
“There is no conflict between social justice and business,” Young quickly responded describing how the Atlanta business community actually had led the effort for social justice in the 1960s.
Hunter-Gault, however, said there needs to be greater conscious on the part of business on social issues.
“Some do the right thing, but many don’t,” she said. “You have to hold business to account.”
To that Lewis added: “There’s an ongoing need to humanize our institutions whether it be corporate or political structures.”
Lewis also was asked about his feelings about gay marriage and how the U.S. Supreme Court might rule.
“In the late 50s and early 60s, Martin Luther King was asked how he felt about interracial marriage. ‘Races don’t fall in love and get married; individuals fall in love and get married,’” Lewis recalled King saying. “You can not have equality for some and not for others.”
Then Lewis predicted that the Supreme Court was going to rule that the Defense of Marriage Act (between a man and a woman) was unconstitutional.
This is the third time the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize in Social Courage has been awarded. The first year it went to former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) who is now CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Last year the award went to Dr. William Foege, a public health hero who is credited for leading the effort to eradicate smallpox.
Thanks to a $2 million endowment given by the Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family Foundation, the recipient of the prize receives $100,000.
Thomas Glenn, president of the foundation, who has become an avid student of Atlanta history — especially during the Civil Rights era, provided the narration of a video made in Lewis’ honor.
Lewis was deeply touched by the presence of members of the Allen family and by the Glenn Foundation gift. He then said that when Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson came to his Atlanta office to tell him he had received the prize, Lewis said he was brought to tears.
In accepting the prize, Lewis said he has always been inspired to make a difference.
“Ivan Allen was a very successful businessman. He had a vision,” Lewis said. “Sometimes I feel today that maybe we are losing our way. What happened to us as a nation? What happened to us as a people?”
Then as if he were answering his own question, Lewis repeated one of his favorite refrains.
“We must never give up. We must never ever lose hope. We must never get lost in a sea of despair,” Lewis said. “I feel more than blessed that I have witnessed in our own country, our own region, a revolution… Our country is better. We still have a distance to go. We must continue to press on.”
And then he paid tribute to Mayor Allen.
“Receiving this honor named for Ivan Allen will inspire me to keep pressing on, not just for America, but for all of humanity,” Lewis said. “We are on house, a world house. It doesn’t matter if we are black or white, Latino or Asian, Democratic or Republican, or if we are gay or straight, if we are wealthy or low-income. We are one people, one house, the world house. Walk with the wind. Let the spirit of history be your guide.”