‘Get in the way’ civil rights pioneer John Lewis urges in Kansas City speech

Renowned civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis urged Americans Sunday night to “get in the way, to get in trouble” in the fight for justice.

“Not one of us can rest, be happy, be at home, be at peace with ourselves, until we end hatred and division,” said Lewis, a longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia.

Lewis spoke Sunday evening in Kansas City at the Human Relations Dinner of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee.

At 23, Lewis was a speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, and in 1965 he was a leader at the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where state troopers attacked marchers with clubs and tear gas. The clash become known as “Bloody Sunday.”

“I thought I saw death,” Lewis said about the confrontation. “I thought I was going to die.”

Lewis, who grew up in rural Alabama, was inspired by the efforts of Rosa Parks and the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Early on I wrote a letter to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I was 17,” he said. “I felt called, moved.”

As a youngster, Lewis said, when he asked his parents and others about the posted signs that divided “colored” and “white,” he was told, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”

That answer wasn’t enough for him, Lewis said. And it shouldn’t be enough for anyone here in the United States, or anyone in any country, when it comes to equal rights for all regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation, he said.

“There are forces in America that want to take us back to another period,” he said. “We must continue to go forward as one people, as brothers and sisters.”

At the dinner held at the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel in Crown Center, James B. Nutter Sr. was honored with the Henry W. Bloch Human Relations Award. Nutter is founder of James B. Nutter & Co., a mortgage company pioneer in making home loans available on a large scale in African-American neighborhoods in Kansas City and to single women.

Marvin Szneler, executive director of the JCRB/AJC, praised Nutter for his “compassion, understanding, strength and forthrightness.”