August 6, 2020

"We All Live in the Same House"

Rep. John Lewis at the 2009 National Preservation Conference

Like so many others, I have spent the last week reflecting on the life of Rep. John Lewis and his incredible impact on American society. And while I have had many opportunities to hear Lewis speak in person over the years, it is his 2009 speech to the National Preservation Conference in Nashville that I remember the most.

Following a rousing talk by Indiana Supreme Court Justice Randall Shepard about preservation and law, Lewis words reverberated through the Downtown Presbyterian Church as he shared his experiences as a young man fighting for civil rights in Nashville. With deliberation, he emphasized the importance of place and preservation in telling that story, outlining his work to introduce legislation to protect sites related to the Civil Rights movement.

At that time, I was a little older than Lewis had been during his time in Nashville, and his speech helped me recognize that all of us can do more to ensure an equitable future for all.

When I was 17, my high school history teacher took us to our parking lot for a reenactment of the 1963 March on Washington. The event itself only lasted ten minutes, but it was the culmination of days of teaching about the Civil Rights era, using music, film, visuals, and speeches to frame the conversation. He even had us spread out along the parking lot to get a sense of how big the crowd was.

In this moment, my teacher wanted us to recognize what it felt like to stand up for something and to help us realize “that the purpose of the march is still to be fulfilled. [That we] knew the struggle for some still remains.”

At the end of the unit, as a surprise, my teacher raffled off signed copies of the recently published biography of Rep. John Lewis—someone many of us had grown to admire.

Civil Rights protest and march on Charlotte Avenue in Nashville (1960-1965)

photo by: Metro Archives, Nashville Public Library

In early 1960, the Nashville Student Movement and the Nashville Christian Leadership Council led a series of sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville. This image features John Lewis walking along Charlotte Avenue in Nashville (date unknown).

Over the years, I would hear Lewis share his life story over and over again, and as I grew up I increasingly understood the impact of his actions (and the many others who fought for civil rights) on my own life.

Listening to him as a college senior where I worked at a book signing for Walking with the Wind, I built connections between the Civil Rights movement and my family's arrival to the United States in the 1970s. And a few years ago, as I thought through the different methods we use to share history, I listened in awe as he spoke of the production of the first of his three graphic novels about the Civil Rights era.

It is that same passion for life, and for the fight for justice, that I hear in the recording of the speech in Nashville, recognizing the far-reaching impact Lewis had in protecting our cultural heritage. While we have certainly lost a champion, I will carry his final words with me in all that I do:

"Call it the house of the National Trust ... Call it the house of Indiana, New York, California. Call it the house of Michigan. Call it a house. Our house. We all live in the same house. We all may not all live in a shotgun house, but we all live in the same house. We all live on this little piece of real estate. It doesn’t matter whether we are Black or white or Latino or Asian American or Native American. We are one people, we are one family, we are one house. And we must keep this house together. We must celebrate our diversity. We must preserve our diversity. All of us must be included."

You can listen to Lewis’ full speech above or on Soundcloud.

While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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