Civil rights leader and Georgia Congressman John Lewis. Courtesy UC San Diego

For a second year in a row, UC San Diego has chosen a civil rights icon as its commencement speaker.

Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a leader in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, will address 15,000 UC San Diego graduates and their families at the June 16 ceremony. Last year the commencement speaker was the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.

The university described Lewis as “one of the most courageous persons the civil rights movement ever produced” and said his work and legacy align with the university’s commitment  to public service and inclusive excellence.

“Rep. John Lewis has dedicated his life to making our world a better place for everyone by protecting human rights and securing civil liberties,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “He stands up for what he believes in and he is not afraid to take risks. These are ideals we aim to convey to our graduates as they commence their careers and lives beyond the classroom.”

Born the son of sharecroppers, Lewis attended segregated public schools in Alabama. At the age of 25, he helped spearhead one of the most seminal moments of the civil rights movement, leading with Hosea Williams—another notable civil rights leader—more than 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL.

They intended to march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” News broadcasts and photographs revealing the senseless cruelty of the segregated South helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Inspired to continue fighting for change, Lewis pursued a career in politics, representing Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since 1986.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, and is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville. Lewis is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

In his talk at UC San Diego’s commencement, Lewis hopes to inspire the audience as he shares his early civil rights involvement and work in Congress. He often tells students, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you must have the courage to stand up, to speak up, and find a way to get in the way.”

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