The birthplace of the late Congressman John Robert Lewis now bears a historic marker, recognizing the significance that this tract of land off Gardner Bassett Road just outside of Troy had on the Civil Rights icon’s life and legacy.
Unveiled during a special ceremony on Saturday, the marker was a project of The John R. Lewis Legacy Institute, a nonprofit organization founded in 2021 by members of the Lewis family to promote diversity, support civil rights education and engage in community service projects that foster the legacy of Congressman Lewis. Sponsors for the day’s events included the Alabama Power Foundation, Delta Airlines, Troy University, the City of Troy, Edward Brewster Photography and Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.
Jerrick Lewis, a nephew of the late Congressman and the Executive Director of the Institute, said that as he grew up he learned from family members about all of his uncle’s accomplishments – his involvement as a Freedom Rider, his leadership on Bloody Sunday, his speech at the March on Washington and how he became known as the ‘Conscience of Congress.’
“I value the time that I got to spend with him and appreciated his desire to make life better for all people,” Lewis said. “After his death, I realized the void left in our family and the world. I could imagine him saying that when we see something that is not right, not fair, not just, we have a moral obligation to speak up, speak out and do something about it. As you can see, my family has played a huge role in my life. To me family is sacred – family represents the past, the present and the future. To John Robert Lewis, I would say thank you for giving us the structure and recipe for change.”
Troy Mayor Jason Reeves expressed pride in sharing Lewis’ Pike County roots.
“This part of the world is so special to me, and it is very special not only because I am from here and my friends are from here but because it where John Robert Lewis became who he was,” Reeves said. “This is where John Robert Lewis learned the dignity and discipline that he used to change the world. When we face so many things that make us feel indignant and we deal with them with the dignity, discipline, courage, faith and foundation of family that John Robert Lewis had, anything is possible. I am so proud that John Robert Lewis was ‘the Boy from Troy,’ and I am so grateful for the impact he and this family have had on my life, on this community, this state and our world.”
Michael Collins, Congressman Lewis’ former Chief of Staff, said wherever Lewis went, Troy went with him.
“This is an embodiment of his life and his legacy,” Collins said. “Anywhere he traveled around the world, he talked about Troy. He carried the teachings of his mother and father and his faith all around the world and he never missed an opportunity to tell the story.”
Collins now serves as Director of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs for Vice President Kamala Harris and brought greetings on Vice President’s behalf.
“Vice President Harris loved the Congressman,” he said. “They worked as colleagues when she joined the Senate. He was a role model for her and someone she looked up to. Having this opportunity to send her greetings was an expression of what Congressman Lewis meant to her life and the work that she does.”
Following the unveiling ceremony, family and friends traveled to the Troy Campus to tour and view artwork adorning the inside of John Robert Lewis Hall before closing out the day’s festivities with a luncheon in the University’s Stadium Club.
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Edward Crowell, who serves as Vice President Pro-tem of the Troy University Board of Trustees, shared with the audience the many ways in which the University, which once refused admission to Lewis, has paid tribute to the late Congressman’s legacy.
In 1989, the University awarded Lewis an honorary doctorate and, in 2006, presented the Congressman with the Hall-Waters Prize for Excellence in Southern Literature for his memoir of the Civil Rights Movement, “Walking with the Wind.”
Following the Congressman’s death in 2020, Troy University hosted one of several memorial services. But, the most lasting tribute to Lewis’ legacy came in November of that year when the landmark building of the campus was renamed in his honor, a move that Crowell said marked one of his fondest moments with the University.
“Today is a historical day with great significance,” Crowell said. “The story of the Honorable John Robert Lewis and Troy University is proof positive that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
Despite being rejected for admission to then Troy State College, Lewis’ legacy of getting into good and necessary trouble to bring about change would eventually have an impact on the University, Crowell said.
“Two decades after Rep. Lewis was denied admission, the Troy University student body elected its first African American President, the late Lamar Higgins, my dear friend and former colleague on the Board of Trustees,” Crowell said. “Without the influence of John Lewis, there would have been no Lamar Higgins at TROY. Without the influence of John Lewis, Troy University would not have taken the extraordinary step of building the Rosa Parks Museum on our campus in Montgomery to honor another giant of the Civil Rights Movement. John Robert Lewis demonstrated great courage in the face of overwhelming challenges. Troy University will forever honor his memory.”