Fisk University names new social justice institute for John Lewis

April 29, 2017, Atlanta - Rep. John Lewis speaks to the crowd at a Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America rally at Woodruff Park in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, April 29, 2017. The group called for action against gun violence and was critical of of the NRA, which is hosting a convention in Atlanta at the same time. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Credit: DAVID BARNES / SPECIAL

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April 29, 2017, Atlanta - Rep. John Lewis speaks to the crowd at a Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America rally at Woodruff Park in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, April 29, 2017. The group called for action against gun violence and was critical of of the NRA, which is hosting a convention in Atlanta at the same time. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Credit: DAVID BARNES / SPECIAL

Lewis graduated from Fisk in 1967

While John Lewis’ body lies in state in the rotunda of the United States Capitol, Nashville’s Fisk University announced that its recently launched institute for social justice would be named after the 1967 graduate.

The John R. Lewis Institute for Social Justice will continue the work of the Fisk Race Relations Institute, which shaped many of the conversations and policies around race during the Civil Rights Movement.

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The 154-year-old black college — which produced W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope Franklin, the Jubilee Singers, Diane Nash and Lewis’ classmate Nikki Giovanni — is looking to reclaim its status as a thought leader in race relations in America by resurrecting a defunct but venerable racial justice program.

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Paul T. Kwami, musical director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, listens as the Fisk Jubilee Singers sing a song as they were honored with a historic marker on the Fisk University campus. The marker commemorates the Singers and their departure from campus in 1871 to tour the United States and abroad to raise funds for Fisk University.

Paul T. Kwami, musical director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, listens as the Fisk Jubilee Singers sing a song as they were honored with a historic marker on the Fisk University campus. The marker commemorates the Singers and their departure from campus in 1871 to tour the United States and abroad to raise funds for Fisk University.

Combined ShapeCaption
Paul T. Kwami, musical director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, listens as the Fisk Jubilee Singers sing a song as they were honored with a historic marker on the Fisk University campus. The marker commemorates the Singers and their departure from campus in 1871 to tour the United States and abroad to raise funds for Fisk University.

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“Nothing could be more appropriate given the congressman’s extraordinary impact on civil rights in this country and across the world,” said Fisk University Provost Vann Newkirk.

Last Saturday, Spelman College announced a plan to start an endowed scholarship in Lewis’ name. The Atlanta HBCU will award a one-time award of $10,000 to five of its Social Justice Fellows.

“We believe that the best way to honor Congressman Lewis is to lift up those who are carrying out his work,” Spelman President Mary Schmidt Campbell said.

Lewis’ route to Fisk was circuitous. He left Troy, Alabama in 1957 to attend the American Baptist Theological Seminary, earning a degree in 1961.

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In 1967, after being one of the first Freedom Riders, speaking at the March on Washington and leading marchers on Bloody Sunday, a 27-year-old Lewis got a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk.

Newkirk said that Lewis, who died on July 17 at the age of 80, was an inspiration to generations of Fisk students and with the John R. Lewis Institute for Social Justice, the college will continue its leadership role in shaping the next era of change-makers.

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Congressman John Lewis greets DeKalb County Board of Education members outside of John Lewis Elementary School. (photo courtesy DeKalb County School District)

Congressman John Lewis greets DeKalb County Board of Education members outside of John Lewis Elementary School. (photo courtesy DeKalb County School District)

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Congressman John Lewis greets DeKalb County Board of Education members outside of John Lewis Elementary School. (photo courtesy DeKalb County School District)

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The former Race Relations Institute was launched in 1942 by Charles S. Johnson, a sociologist and the first Black president of Fisk. Johnson, the grandfather of Barack Obama’s former head of the Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, spent much of his early career writing and researching racial conditions in the United States and was a prominent Harlem Renaissance figure.

The once-prominent department helped draft strategies around the desegregation of public schools and the armed forces.

But before the current administration revived it, the department had been shuttered since 2005.

“It’s almost like the reawakening of a giant,” Newkirk said in 2019. “We were a giant in improving race relations in America. We want to make sure we carve our space out and reclaim our space, as the social justice leader in America.”

The John R. Lewis Institute will include a master’s program in social justice, several certificate programs as well as various undergraduate projects, research, and forums.

“Congressman John R. Lewis embodied the very best of humanity,” said Fisk President Kevin D. Rome. “His kindness, perseverance and unwavering commitment to fighting for those in need set an example for all the young people who are looking to create a better world.”