Reflecting on Rep. John Lewis’ strong TROY, community ties

Rep. John Lewis had a long and storied history with Troy University and his home area of Pike County, Alabama.

Rep. John Lewis had a long and storied history with Troy University and his home area of Pike County, Alabama.

The man for whom historic Bibb Graves Hall was renamed late last year had a long and inspiring relationship with both Pike County and Troy University.

The late Rep. John Lewis, who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nicknamed “The Boy from Troy” due to his roots in Pike County, Alabama, initially planned to attend TROY early in his life, only to be denied admission in 1957.

Despite this rejection, Lewis didn’t succumb to bitterness, choosing instead to forgive the institution.

He beamed with pride when he returned to campus in 1989 to receive an honorary doctorate and in 2006 when he received the prestigious Hall-Waters Prize for his memoir “Walking with the Wind.”

“He never said a negative word about Troy University,” said TROY Board of Trustees member Lamar P. Higgins. “He always said let’s work together and let’s make America better together.”

The congressman also played a key role in the growth and success of TROY’s Rosa Parks Museum, located at the Montgomery Campus.

Lewis, who walked the same streets and experienced the very memories preserved at the museum, led many civil rights history pilgrimages from the Faith and Politics Institute, trips that included stops at the Rosa Parks Museum, as he introduced prominent political leaders from around the nation to the museum and Troy University.

“Every year, the Faith and Politics Institute has a pilgrimage to Alabama for congressmen, senators and their families and staff to visit civil rights states,” said Ray White, Montgomery Campus Vice Chancellor and Rosa Parks Museum Interim Director. “Congressman Lewis used to lead those delegations, because he knew as much about the sites as anybody. A lot of times, he would actually help do the tours, because he knew so much about the Montgomery bus boycott and knew Dr. King and Rosa Parks personally.”

White, who oversaw much of the museum’s growth over the years, said Lewis played an integral role in spreading awareness of the museum and its mission.

“He was the right person to lead these pilgrimages,” White said. “Over 1,000 current and previous U.S. congressmen and senators have visited or been part of these pilgrimages. Aside from the tour of the museum, the stories Congressman Lewis would share with people would include not only what happened in Montgomery, but in Selma and other places in the South, stories from his head and from his heart. He would keep people on pins and needles wanting to hear more.”

Lewis’ stories impacted White personally, showing him a glimpse of Lewis’ courageous spirit.

“He was that kind of person. He would spend more time than we even allocated to share some of his stories with, in many cases, significantly younger people,” White said. “He didn’t hold a grudge against Troy University despite being denied admission in his youth. I saw him in the early years of the pilgrimages. In my interactions with Congressman Lewis, he was extremely personable. He would always talk to custodians in the museum, receptionists, gift shop people. He was never putting on a persona — no matter what your job was, you were an important person when he was talking to you. There were no airs about him where he was too important to speak or talk to anyone.”

The civil rights leader’s influence was also seen in the University’s annual Leadership Conference, which now bears his name.

Lewis delivered a keynote speech at the 17th annual conference, held in 2018, in which he called education the key to unlocking the best possible future for the nation.

This past year, TROY’s Board of Trustees began an examination of building names throughout the University system.

Following an extensive review process that included input from administrators, faculty members and students, TROY’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to rename Bibb Graves Hall into John Robert Lewis Hall.

The name change honors Lewis’ undeniable contributions to civil rights in America, his service to his district as a congressman and his close bond with the University.

“When we were talking about possibly changing the name, we didn’t specifically have that name in our minds, but students had in the past suggested that we name a building after John Lewis at Troy University,” Higgins said. “People have to remember that universities are not stagnant. They grow, and that’s what we do. We help young people to grow. And so our buildings, our curricula, our programs all reflect the America that we want it to be. When you think about what America looked like 65 years ago and what it looks like now, it’s a different America, and it’s a different America because of people like John Lewis.”

As Higgins said at the dedication of the building this past November, “Without John Lewis, there would be no Lamar Higgins.”