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Archive for Monday, February 16, 2009

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Renewed hope: Inauguration trip honors family’s civil rights work

February 16, 2009

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soon as I heard Obama won the election, I knew I had to go to Washington for the inauguration,” says Lawrence resident David Milton Lewis.

“I felt I had to represent my grandfather, father and others like them who worked so hard to create a country where everyone would have equal rights and opportunities.”

His grandfather, the Rev. John Lewis — born in 1886 in Georgia, the son of a freed slave — was the first in his family to be formally educated. He graduated from Yale University Divinity School and served as dean of Payne Theological Seminary at Wilberforce University in Ohio.

“My grandfather instilled into his children the importance of education, being a credit to their race and their responsibility to work for equal rights,” Lewis says.

Lewis’ father, Milton Dunbar Lewis, influenced by his father’s passion for education and civil rights, got a bachelor’s degree from Wilberforce University, a master’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and became a mediator with the U.S. Justice Department.

“My father worked with community leaders and police departments, helping them to create and build good relationships with all sections in the community,” Lewis says.

In 1968, his father received two letters from U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark saying he deserved the deep appreciation of all Americans for his work in community relations.

In spite of the strides being made to create equal opportunities, Lewis was born in a segregated Chicago hospital in 1962. The family moved into an all-white neighborhood in St. Louis when his father was transferred there in 1964. By the time they moved to Kansas in 1974, the neighborhood was all black.

“Subtle segregation was still taking place,” Lewis says.

Intent on becoming a community activist, he studied political science at Kansas University but dropped out of school in 1984 when his father died.

“I became depressed and lost heart in the state of American politics,” Lewis says. “The government seemed too focused on prosperity and materialism. Human and civil rights were no longer a top priority. I felt my father’s hard work lost its value.”

He worked as a printer and traveled around California before returning to Lawrence in 1994. In 1997, he opened a downtown cafe named Milton’s, 920 Mass., in honor of his father.

Obama’s election has rekindled Lewis’ pride in the America his grandfather and father worked to build.

“When I saw President Obama step to the podium, I was deeply moved,” he says. “When he acknowledged the importance and dignity of hard work, and the struggles and sacrifices of Americans like my grandfather and father, I felt proud and full of hope.”

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