The passing of civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis on July 17, 2020 draws thoughts to the unparalleled impact he has had on this nation and to the brief moments he shared with the Chatham community during his visit to campus in 1964. At the time, Lewis was the National Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). His visit to campus was a student-initiated event, arranged by the Student Peace Union (SPU), a group organized in 1961-62 and led by Chatham student and activist Linda Watts.
John Lewis’ visit was the climax of an SPU lecture series, which also included talks with President of the Pennsylvania NAACP Henry Smith, Chairman of the Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee Frank Wilkinson, and member of The Freedom Singers Charles “Chico” Neblett. A Guest Editorial in the student newspaper promoted Lewis’ visit as being “a landmark in the 1963-64 calendar at Chatham.”
During his stay in Pittsburgh, Lewis also spoke at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, the annual Americans for Democratic Action dinner, the Tri-State Conference of Hillel, and the Central Baptist Church. According to local newspapers, Lewis’s visit aimed to recruit volunteers to increase voter registration among Black members of the Mississippi community.
In anticipation of Lewis’ visit to campus, the student newspaper printed excerpts from a speech he delivered at the 1963 March on Washington. These excerpts reflect Lewis’ views on impact of police brutality, voter suppression, and the need for sustained activism. The full article can be viewed in the February 29, 2964 issue of the student newspaper accessible here.
Though the collections of the Chatham Archives do not contain photographs of John Lewis on campus, the student newspaper includes articles that describe the event and also offer analysis of the campus climate. One article, titled “`Time for Waiting is Past,’ Says John Lewis from SNCC” recounts the main tenets of his speech, which included acknowledgement of the work of college students and a rebuttal to anti-communist critics of the civil rights movement. The full article can be viewed here.
Another article in this issue raises a few questions about the reception Lewis received on campus. In a column titled “Thru the Keyhole,” student Diane Brutout reports that there were some “[r]umblings around campus” that were “critical of SPU’s [Student Peace Union] all-out publicity campaign for Lewis.” According to Brutout’s reporting, some students complained that the multitude of posters promoting Lewis’ lecture “implied a false consensus among Chatham Students about SNCC.” The full article can be accessed here.
Brutout, later a Chatham Trustee whose lifelong dedication to civil rights included focused work supporting women in the workplace, described the work of Lewis and SNCC as restoring law in the American South by encouraging voter registration. She quoted Lewis’ speech, “Last week 500 people stood in line all day long in one Mississippi county in order to register. In that period of time, seven people were given the test.” The test Lewis refers to is the voter application and literacy tests that were used to deny Blacks the right to vote prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. An example Mississippi voter application is shown below.
Directing her comments at those students who were dissatisfied with Lewis’ visit, Brutout writes, “When only 20,000 out of a potential 400,000 Negros can vote in Mississippi, it is time to press for a revitalization of the earlier mentioned consensus.” In closing, Brutout sharply chides her classmates by stating, “The most many Chatham students have done is to open a forum for the articulation of valid grievances.”
We don’t have an opinion piece in the student newspaper to explain the “rumblings” any further, so we don’t know (from the newspaper at least) why there was disagreement. Could it have been because Lewis was considered to be a radical member of the civil rights movement and some Chatham students preferred a more moderate approach? Could the rumblings have resulted from an absence of enthusiasm for the civil rights movement? Something entirely different? What resources could one use to get a fuller picture of the climate and what might one discover about the history of the civil rights movement on college campus through that research?
In looking at the climate on Chatham’s campus in the mid-sixties and student engagement in the civil rights movement, we can note the work of Linda Watts, chair of the Student Peace Union. During the summer prior to Lewis’ visit to campus, Watts worked on behalf of SNCC in the Fayette County, Tennessee voter registration drive. In 1965, Linda Watts and classmate Susan Schnapf `67 traveled to Selma, Alabama to participate in the marches across the Edmond Pettis Bridge on Tuesday, March 9, 1965. Read Watts and Schnapf’s first-hand accounts of the march here. Watts served as the contact for the Pittsburgh chapter of the Friends of SNCC and remained active the Pittsburgh social justice movement, protesting race discrimination by craft unions.
John Lewis’ speech at Chatham in 1964 and the vigorous activism he inspired among Chatham students serve as single point in a monumental career that is without parallel. Please explore the links provided below for resources and archival collections that more fully document the impact John Lewis has made on the country and history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
- John Lewis biography on the SNCC Digital Gateway
- SNCC Digital Gateway
- Eyewitness: American Originals from the National Archives, John Lewis
- Civil Rights Digital Library, John Lewis
- Interview with John Lewis, Washington University in St. Louis Libraries
- Oral History Interview with John Lewis in 2004, JFK Archives
- Oral History Interview with John Lewis in 1973, Documenting the American South