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Padma Bhushan Dr. Jag Sheth remembers Civil Rights Icon John Lewis

August 2020
Padma Bhushan Dr. Jag Sheth remembers Civil Rights Icon John Lewis

To know John Lewis was to admire him. I realized this in the short but inspiring time that I had the privilege of spending with him.

As the civil rights icon passes away, I am reminded of my meeting with him a few years ago when my wife, Madhu Sheth and I had the privilege to invite Congressman, John Lewis and Former Ambassador to The United Nations, Andrew Young as keynote speakers at the 2015 Jaina Convention held in Atlanta. It was a July Fourth weekend and luckily both were in town. On behalf of the host committee, I approached my good friend R.K. Sehgal, former Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Industry, who knew them both to request them to be keynote speakers at the convention of more than 5,000 delegates from all over the world.

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Congressman John Lewis at the 2015 Jaina Convention

My reason to invite them to speak at the convention was simple. The theme of the convention was ‘Nonviolence Matters’. Ahimsa or nonviolence is the foundation of Jainism, and as most people know, it inspired Mahatma Gandhi who realized that nonviolence is very effective in resolution of any conflict.

Gandhi had used it very effectively in South Africa to protest against the apartheid (segregation) policy of the British rule of the time. He also led numerous peaceful large-scale rallies to gain India’s independence from the British Rule.

It is but Gandhi who was the role model for both Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States. Both Congressman Lewis and Ambassador Young were followers of MLK and active participants in the Civil Rights movement of the sixties when  Atlanta had become the hub of civil rights protests.

And of course, John Lewis is often referred to as the American Gandhi.

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Madhu Sheth escorting Congressman John Lewis to the podium

My wife escorted Congressman Lewis to the podium and introduced him. Both Congressman Lewis and Ambassador Young delivered their keynote addresses. We played a short video clip of the confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama as depicted in the movie, Selma. It was simply electrifying.

John Lewis, as always, delivered one of the great inspiring speeches to an audience of more than four thousand delegates, including lots of young Indian Americans. Of course, there was a standing ovation lasting several minutes in the end. I also noticed that the young people in the audience surged forward to shake hands with him and to talk to him.

At that moment, I realized what made Lewis a great leader. He knew how to relate to the next generation and inspire them to lead and get involved with “good trouble.” Indeed, as he famously tweeted in 2018, "Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble."

While we will miss him in person, his legacy will eternally carry forward by continuing to inspire the next generation to be on the right side of history.

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