MODESTO -- U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who marched alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., will speak at Modesto Junior College's annual celebration for the slain civil rights leader.
Lewis, who represents Georgia's 5th Congressional District, will be the keynote speaker at MJC's 18th annual Martin Luther King Day Commemoration on Feb. 9.
Lewis was dubbed one of the "big six leaders" in the civil rights movement and served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during some of its most productive years in the mid-1960s. He helped plan the March on Washington in August 1963 and spoke at the event, where King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.
His MJC talk, titled "King's Spirit Today," will celebrate the life and legacy of the civil rights icon. The event will include inspirational music, poetry and the presentation of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award.
Lauded over the years for his work to end racial discrimination and segregation, Lewis has been called "the conscience of the U.S. Congress." Roll Call magazine has described the congressman as "a genuine American hero and moral leader who commands widespread respect in the chamber."
Lewis first was elected to Congress in 1986 and has served there ever since. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor, in 2011.
Dan Onorato, MJC emeritus faculty and member of the MLK Day organizing committee, said the group has tried to get Lewis to speak at the event three times before. But the fourth time, and its later scheduling, turned out to be the charm. Martin Luther King Day is celebrated nationally Jan. 21.
"We're utterly delighted," Onorato said. "For us this is a real prize. (Lewis) is one of the most important characters in the civil rights movement. His courage is absolutely amazing. It's particularly important that young people show up. They didn't live through it, and what they know about Dr. Martin Luther King is often minimal. So to hear his story and his comments on our society today, we're all really looking forward to it."
Past speakers at the free MJC event, which partners with the Modesto-Peace Life Center, include King's daughter, Yolanda King, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and Princeton Professor Cornel West.
Lewis is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Mary Stuart Rogers Student Learning Center on the MJC West Campus, 2201 Blue Gum Ave. The event is free and open to the public.
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2284.