Civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis kept his commencement speech at the University of South Carolina short and sweet Monday.
The Georgia Democrat reminded the 1,600 students graduating from USC and its sister campuses Monday of the beatings and arrests that he suffered while championing civil rights in the Deep South decades ago.
“You must go out and get in trouble, necessary trouble, to help make our country and make our world a better place,” Lewis said during his eight-minute speech. “When you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate to stand up, to speak up and to speak out.”
Lewis, one of the “Big 6” leaders of the 1960s civil rights movement, did not directly address last month’s surprise presidential election of New York Republican Donald Trump.
He touched on politics only briefly, joking some of the chickens he raised on his farm in the Jim Crow South were as productive as some of his colleagues in Congress. “At least they produced eggs.”
Lewis recalled growing up the son of rural Alabama sharecroppers and hearing family members tell him to not “get into trouble” over signs he saw that marked the water fountains or bathrooms he could use.
He did not have the same advice for USC’s 2016 graduates.
“Go out there and get in the way, make a little noise,” Lewis said. “Be bold. Be brave. Be courageous. And use your education, your training. Redeem the soul of our nation and help make our world a better place for all human beings.”
Lewis will be USC’s last guest speaker for the foreseeable future. Starting next spring, USC president Harris Pastides will deliver all commencement speeches.