SIPA’s 70th Anniversary festivities kicked off on March 30 as a selection of boldface names from New York City’s political world joined students, faculty, and alumni at Miller Theatre for this year’s David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum. Headlining the event was keynote speaker John Lewis, the civil rights icon and U.S. congressman whose home district is centered on Atlanta, Georgia.
The annual forum, which marked its 20th year, is named for the SIPA professor who served as New York City’s first African American mayor. The event continues to provide a platform for analysis and dialogue that addresses many of the challenging issues facing urban policies, programs, and initiatives.
Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger opened the evening, saluting Lewis’s experiences in the civil rights movement and his lifelong support for equal rights. Without such a “lived sense of where we have been,” Bollinger said, “we cannot really understand where we are and where we must go.”
In welcoming Lewis, Dinkins noted that he had “stood on [Lewis’s] broad, strong shoulders for the last 50 years, along with Americans of all races, ages, and creeds.
“And so have you,” he added, addressing the gathered audience.
Relating some of the congressman’s life experience, Dinkins described how Lewis—a son of Alabama sharecroppers—was active in protesting for freedom, as he participated in sit-ins, bus rides, and marches. Most significant was the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery known as Bloody Sunday, in which Lewis suffered a fractured skull at the hands of police troopers. Lewis would go on to be arrested 40 times between then and today.
Taking the stage, Lewis spoke about how he was told as a child that segregation of the time was just “the way it is” and not to get in the way. However, with encouragement from a schoolteacher, Lewis read everything he could, he said—about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.
He was inspired, he said, to “find a way to get in the way, to get in good trouble, necessary trouble. And I’ve been getting in trouble ever since.”
Using the cadences of a preacher and alternating between quiet and booming tones, Lewis said his philosophy is that “when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation—a mission and a mandate—to speak up, to speak out, and get in the way.”
Lewis recounted his memory of the march in Selma, where he thought he was going to die. But he was taken in, he said, by sisters at a nearby Catholic hospital, who took care of him. Recently, he reconnected with three of those sisters, who recognized him, and they hugged.
“We must never, ever forget the bridges that brought us across,” he said.
“Sometimes you’re called to turn things upside down, to set it right side up,” Lewis said as he concluded his remarks. “Teach the students, teach the young, because the young will teach us. And they will lead us to a better place [where] no one is left out or left behind.”
The forum also featured a panel discussion on "Reframing Economic and Political Citizenship," moderated by Ester Fuchs, director of SIPA’s concentration in Urban and Social Policy. Participants included faculty member Michael A. Nutter and guests David Goodman, Verna Eggleston, and Michael Waldman. The panelists discussed at length the transformations U.S. citizens are experiencing to their civil, economic, and political identities under the Trump administration, and what we need to be doing to preserve the hard-fought victories of the past and expand our vision of rights for the future.
— Matt Terry MIA ’17