Presentation of the Robert Sargent Shriver Jr. Award for Equal Justice

Chicago, IL | April 27, 2001

Tonight, the National Center on Poverty Law honors Congressman John Lewis for his leadership and without question, the inspiration and hope he offers so many in speaking out and fighting for fairness and for equal justice for all.

Tonight it is my great honor to introduce you to the recipient of this year's Award for Equal Justice, John Lewis. He is a true American hero, a champion for those less fortunate, and a courageous civil rights leader. In the face of police brutality and angry mobs, he has continued to stand up for his convictions. In Congress, he has been an important voice for low-income people and for preserving the Legal Services program and increasing its funding. He has been a consistent and powerful voice for equal justice.

John Lewis grew up a sharecropper's son in rural Alabama. It was there, during his youth when he determined that "where there is injustice, you cannot ignore the call of conscience." He explains how he came to fight for justice in his remarkable autobiography, "Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement." I highly recommend John's book to all of you, as not only a "good read" but a profoundly inspirational one.

I don't want to spoil the book for you by giving away any of the fascinating stories from John Lewis' life, but I hope you won't mind if I share at least a few of the details. At the age of 23, John Lewis was a leader in organizing the 1963 March on Washington and one of the "Big Six" civil rights leaders, along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., A. Phillip Randolph, Whitney Young, James Farmer, and Roy Wilkins. His speech at the March calling for justice put him squarely in the national spotlight.

Congressman Lewis' meaningful work is further strengthened by his talent, his drive, his ability to motivate others, his compassion for humanity, and his uncompromised belief in the American system and the people affected by it. Not surprisingly, John has been a strong and eloquent voice for equal justice in Congress. He has served as the Chief Deputy and Democratic Whip for the past ten years, and a member of the Democratic Steering Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus.

As a member of the very important Ways and Means Committee, he is a voice for economic justice and for health care for all. In opposing the 1996 welfare reform law, he warned that it was a "betrayal of a commitment to the most vulnerable people in our society." The validity of his concerns have been borne out, while some now call this welfare reform a "success," many understand that for those most vulnerable, including those with disabilities and those whose children have special needs, far more needs to be done.

Congressman Lewis is also a champion of affordable housing and the importance of strengthening communities. He has focused attention on the rights of public housing tenants to have adequate representation on the boards of directors of local housing authorities. He was a lead co-sponsor of the historic Home Ownership Tax Credit that helped revive decaying neighborhoods while at the same time making homeownership more affordable for families with modest incomes.

And, of course, throughout his time in Congress, John Lewis has been a strong voice in support of legal services for the poor and an important supporter of increased funding for the Legal Services Corporation and against restrictions that limit the ability of legal aid attorneys to fully represent their clients.

As a nation we are currently struggling, concerned about the future.

As people particularly concerned about the challenges that the new world order and the current economy bring to low-income people, John Lewis' message of hope is clear, inspiring, and powerful.

Tonight, the National Center on Poverty Law honors Congressman John Lewis for his leadership and without question, the inspiration and hope he offers so many in speaking out and fighting for fairness and for equal justice for all.

Most of all, John, may I encourage you to create and publicize your ideas of how we can successfully deal with the new challenges facing our country today. Thanks to your work in the past, we have a population much more integrated and unified. But now we're confronted by enemies which operate from foundations which are to a considerable extent different from anything we have ever encountered in the Western World.

In my judgment, John, we'll have to explain more and more to our own people why it is that our country and big cities have been attacked by people with far different religious and military ideals.

We are dealing with leaders and ideological beliefs we have never confronted before. Leaders like you, John, with your vast knowledge from the past, and your capacity to understand new enemies from new countries engaged in new types of war, are needed more than ever.

I believe you are one of the most farsighted human beings who can rouse our country so that we can successfully overcome new enemies who attack us without any accurate understanding of our principles, our achievements, or hopes for the future happiness, prosperity and equality among all people for which our country stands.

Yes, we do need political and military leaders with political, economic, and even military vision far greater than any that has existed anywhere on earth. I am sure you know, John that we need new ideas and new vision similar to the ones you have espoused over the last 40 years. But, may I say once again that we need new ideas for a new world in the 21st Century. And you, John, are a man with the ability to help our country and old-timers like me to face successfully the challenges of the new world.

Tonight, the National Center on Poverty Law honors Congressman John Lewis for his leadership and without question, for the inspiration he offers to so many.