John Lewis honored with the Liberty Medal

Civil Rights icon, Congressman John Lewis, places his hand over his heart as he faces the crowd. Lewis received the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center on Sept. 19, 2016.

John Lewis, the Georgia congressman, civil rights giant, and frontline soldier in the struggle for racial equality, was awarded the Liberty Medal on Monday night, more than a half-century after he marched on Washington and vowed to "burn Jim Crow to the ground, nonviolently."

Lewis, 76, the only surviving leader of the movement's "Big Six," which included the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., accepted the medal outside the National Constitution Center. He joined a list of recipients that includes the Dalai Lama, Muhammad Ali, Thurgood Marshall, and several Nobel Peace Prize recipients.

"I never tried to win any award. My plan wasn't to seek fame or fortune," Lewis said after receiving a standing ovation. "All I wanted to do is to help out. To do what I could to help make this country and the world community a little bit better: More just, a little more peaceful for all of its citizens."

Lewis' booming voice carried well past his audience and over Arch Street in the direction of Independence Hall, two blocks away. He gained steam as he proclaimed the power of nonviolent resistance.

"There are some people that have said, 'Nothing has changed.' Come and walk in my shoes and I will show you change," Lewis said.

Established in 1988 to commemorate the bicentennial of the Constitution, the Liberty Medal is traditionally awarded to those who strive to secure liberty for people around the world. It carries a $100,000 cash prize.

Lewis was hailed as a hero and a patriot by local leaders, including Mayor Kenney, former Gov. Ed Rendell, and University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann. The actor Morgan Freeman, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and other members of Congress congratulated Lewis by video, while Constitution Center chief operating officer Vince Stango read a message from President Obama.

"Anyone who knows anything about John Lewis knows him to be a man who does not give into fear. He does not give into threats," Gutmann said. "Courageous is a word that would've been invented for John Lewis."

"You've made us all proud to be Americans," Rendell said.

Lewis, in his 15th term in Congress, is a sharecropper's son who organized lunch-counter sit-ins, participated in Freedom Rides through the Deep South, and was a keynote speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. He was 23, the youngest speaker.

He has been arrested dozens of times and suffered a fractured skull in the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

He's shown few signs of slowing down. This year, Lewis led a House sit-in over gun control, crowd surfed on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and witnessed the completion of an African American history museum 28 years in the making.

"Many of us today are impatient with young people and maybe resist the activism of young people. But so too did people resist the activism of John Lewis, and look what he did for this country," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Lewis acknowledged battles fought and won - including the election of a black president - and urged the crowd to remain engaged and continue working to "create a society at peace with itself."

"You made me cry tonight," Lewis said. "I will never, ever forget this evening."

benderw@phillynews.com

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