MODESTO — Rep. John Lewis spoke of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "quiet revolution" before a packed and appreciative house at Modesto Junior College on Saturday evening.
The Georgia congressman spoke of history, his history, as a King contemporary who suffered beatings, hospital stays and about 40 arrests in the formative years of the civil rights movement.
Despite that, he said, "If I had to do it all over again, I would do it. To get to work with this man, Martin Luther King Jr., I feel I was blessed."
Speaking at a reception before the event, Lewis said he comes to events such as this to bring King's life and message to the next generation.
"We need to embrace the changes today, especially young people. They live in a different America than I grew up in, a better America," he said.
Lewis was dubbed one of the "big six leaders" in the civil rights movement and served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 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.
After Lewis' speech at the Mary Stuart Rogers Student Learning Center, he answered questions from the audience. Lewis said the war in Afghanistan should end, that war is outdated, and that there are too many assault weapons and guns. Asked if he could change one thing for the nation, he said he would make higher education free.
It was the first visit to the Central Valley for Lewis. He grew up on a peanut farm in rural Alabama, where his dad put him in charge of the chickens.
In the 1940s and '50s in Alabama, signs labeled public places for "whites" or "coloreds." As a teenager, he sat in the wrong area at a restaurant. "I remember being pulled off the lunch counter stool by my hair," he said.
"When I hear someone say things haven't changed, I tell them, 'Come and walk in my shoes.' Those signs are gone and they will not return," Lewis said.
He was 15 in 1955 when he read about Rosa Parks and was inspired "to get in trouble. Good trouble."
Lewis said he didn't know where he would be without King. "I wouldn't be in Congress, that's sure," he said. "I don't know where we would be as a nation and a people."
King taught the way of nonviolence, he said. "This man freed a nation," Lewis said. "He changed America forever."
In 1961, the year President Barack Obama was born, Lewis was beaten and left in a pool of blood for his activism. One of the white men who beat him came to his congressional office years later and asked his forgiveness, Lewis said. He gave it, and they both cried and embraced.
"I called him brother. He called me brother," he said. That was what King taught; his dream was to bring people together, Lewis said.
Tommie Muhammad, former director of Modesto's King-Kennedy Memorial Center, said he worked for a decade to bring Lewis to speak at the city's Martin Luther King Day celebration. "When he tells that history, he makes it live in the mind," Muhammad said.
Dan Onorato of the Modesto Peace/Life Center presented the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award to The Bridge nonprofit organization for its work with southeast Asian refugees.
The group "kept on walking through a lot of thick and thin" in its work, following King's vision for "the beloved community," Onorato said.
Bee staff writer Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter, @NanAustin.