Congressman John Lewis Leads Civil Rights Discussion at T.C. Williams

Congressman John Lewis, who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama, 50 years ago, led a discussion on civil rights at T.C. Williams High School on Monday as part of the school’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

To a backdrop of an image of the Selma march, he told T.C. Williams social studies, history and government students who had invited him to speak that they need to lead, inspire and stand up for what they believe in.

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Despite repeated advice from his parents not to “get in trouble,” he was unable to ignore the signs of segregation distinguishing ‘whites’ and ‘coloreds’ when he visited Tuskegee or Montgomery. He was incensed by his inability to get a library card. Lewis was finally inspired to take action when he was refused a place at Troy State College. It was then that he wrote to Dr. King, who sent him a bus ticket to Montgomery and told Lewis to come and see him.

“‘Are you the boy from Troy?’ Dr. King asked. He started calling me the boy from Troy. He taught us non-violent protest when someone would come up and spit on us or put a lighted cigarette out on a hand,” Congressman Lewis said.

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Lewis originally came to Washington, D.C. as part of the Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activists who challenged segregation in interstate bus terminals. Along their trip from D.C. into the South, Lewis was badly beaten along with his white companion in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

“I went to jail and felt liberated. I was beaten, arrested and jailed forty times. I thought I was going to die on the bridge on Selma. 50 years later I’m still here,” said Congressman Lewis.

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The year the march from Selma to Montgomery took place – 1965 – was the same year that T.C. Williams High School opened. Alexandria’s three existing high schools – George Washington, Francis C. Hammond and Parker-Gray – were still largely segregated. Although eight black students from the all-black high school, Parker-Gray, transferred to study at the white high school, George Washington, in 1963, the move was largely seen as a social experiment and the high schools were still mostly segregated when T.C. Williams first opened.

In 1965, Parker-Gray High School closed and 2,000 eleventh- and twelfth-grade students of every color were sent to the new T.C. Williams. The remaining ninth- and tenth-grade students transferred to George Washington and Francis C. Hammond, the two previously all-white high schools.

“Ours is a smaller story than the story John Lewis has to tell about his civil rights work alongside Martin Luther King. But it, too, reflects the battle for civil rights and in its own way our story has become an icon for the battle for civil rights at that time,” said T.C. Williams Principal Jesse Dingle.

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In 1971, school officials drew up a plan to voluntarily desegregate the two remaining high schools and consolidate them under one roof: T.C. Williams High School. The Disney movie, “Remember the Titans” is about the issues Alexandria faced during the desegregation of the high schools. It tells the story about how students, families and ACPS coaches overcame their prejudices to come together to win the 1971 State Championships that year, in a way that reflects the larger discussion around civil rights that was happening nationally.

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“As young people, as leaders of the 21st century, when you see something that is not right, not just you have to speak out so we can make it better. We all come from some other place. We are all immigrants. Love is better than hate. None-violence is better than violence. Be a headlight and not a tail light. You have a legacy to uphold,” Congressman Lewis told the students.

Read what the Washington Post had to say about this event.

Watch the full video of Congressman John Lewis’ visit below, and view more photos from the event on the ACPS Facebook page.

ACPS, T.C. Williams, Video