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Civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis, who was beaten in Selma, tells St. Joe's crowd, 'We are going forward.'

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who was beaten at Selma on Bloody Sunday, tells the St. Joseph community the fight for rights won't be turned back.

John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights leader, speaks at St. Joe’s.
John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights leader, speaks at St. Joe’s.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

First, U.S. Rep. John Lewis warmed up his audience with humor: He told a story about his childhood days preaching to farmyard chickens.

But then, the man who sat at segregated lunch counters as a college student and later spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. told the world about his "dream," shared how, when he was 25, his skull was cracked on "Bloody Sunday." In Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, it was the first time a group of nonviolent voting-rights activists tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to march to Montgomery.

State troopers on horseback had galloped into a crowd of about 100 marchers, swinging billy clubs, firing tear gas, and knocking over marchers.

Lewis was one of 58 people injured and 17 hospitalized after the violent attack that was retold to new generations in the Ava DuVernay film Selma.

"I was the first to be hit, I was knocked down. I thought I was going to die," Lewis, the now 78-year-old Democrat from Georgia, told about 1,000 students, staff, and visitors at Hagan Arena at St. Joseph's University on Monday morning.

Later, when King came to Selma, Lewis told him: "I don't know how President Lyndon Johnson could send thousands of troops to Vietnam but not send soldiers to protect people who only want the right to vote."

Lewis' lecture was the final event of a yearlong commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the speech King gave at St. Joseph's on Oct. 26, 1967 — at Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse, where Hagan Arena now sits — only months before he would be assassinated in Memphis. Lewis was presented with the President's Medal for Excellence on Monday.

He first was inspired to get involved in the fight for civil rights when he was 15 and heard on the radio both Rosa Parks and King speaking about the Montgomery bus boycott.

When he was 17, before he was about to head to college, he wrote King a letter and was invited to take a bus to Montgomery to meet King and his chief lieutenant — in those days, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy.

When he got to Montgomery, he was led into a room at the First Baptist Church: "I was so scared. I didn't know what to say. And then I saw Dr. King, and he said to me, 'Are you the boy from Troy?'

"I said, 'I am John Robert Lewis,' but he still would always call me the 'boy from Troy.' "

Lewis said he believed King and the civil rights movement permanently changed America. " I remember when black people trying to vote had to count how many bubbles were in a bar of soap or how many beans were in a jar."

There are people who want to turn the clock back, he said. But he vowed they won't succeed. (He didn't answer questions about what he thought about the arrests of two black men at a Center City Starbucks last week.)

"We are going forward," he said. "We are not going backward."

Former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode Sr. was in a small room of people meeting Lewis immediately after the speech.

"I believe Dr. Martin Luther King was the most impactful person in our fight for rights, and right after him comes John Lewis," Goode said.

Tristen Shoemaker, 20, a sophomore marketing student from Scranton, said he was inspired by Lewis' speech. Shoemaker, who is biracial, said he grew up with his white mother and didn't have a sense of black history until he arrived at St. Joseph's and met his black roommate.

The irony that Lewis was speaking of his lunch-counter sit-in days while people protested the arrests at Starbucks didn't surprise Shoemaker.

"To be honest, that's typical" of how black men are treated, he said.

He recalled a time when a white woman dropped her wallet and he picked it up to return to her.

Shoemaker said she told him: "Don't touch my belongings, n—–."

Another time, his friend was walking behind a group of white students who turned around to see him in a big, black coat — "because it was really cold" — and they took off running.

"He took off running too because he thought they were running from some danger," he said. Still, he said, the "clear majority of our classmates are fine."

Monica Nixon, assistant provost for inclusion and diversity, said of the characterization by Shoemaker and his friends of their campus experiences:

"We abhor any incidence of intolerance or discrimination," she said. "As part of our mission, we strive to be an inclusive and diverse community that educates and cares for the whole person. … We also know that we must, individually, as a university, and as a society, do more to pursue social justice and to create a more equitable and inclusive community, which Dr. King and Rep. Lewis describe as the 'beloved community.' "