To the future through past

A tour of several civil rights sites in the South inspires the leadership goals of Carroll NAACP's new president

January 28, 2007|By David P. Greisman | David P. Greisman,Special to the Sun

Standing on the third floor of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., New Windsor resident Jean Lewis gazed into the room at the Lorraine Motel that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. occupied nearly four decades ago.

Her eyes moved toward the window, to the balcony where King was assassinated, and then farther away, to the rooming house from where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot.

Playing overhead was "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," the gospel song performed by Mahalia Jackson at King's funeral.

Lewis cried.

"It took me back to where I was when I heard the news," she said. "I thought about where we've come from that time period to now. I thought there had been a lot of strides, but there's still a long way to go."

After her visit this month to the museum, which was built within and around the Lorraine Motel, Lewis continued on a tour coordinated by the Ira & Mary Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education at McDaniel College and the University of Rhode Island's Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies.

Her next stops: four towns in Mississippi, including Philadelphia, where three civil rights workers were killed in 1964.

Inspired by the significance of past struggles, Lewis is prepared to guide the Carroll County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People into the future.

Last month, Lewis became president of the Carroll NAACP after being an active member for nearly eight years. Now, she is a leader for both the group and a larger community.

"Jean has been our behind-the-scenes person for the past several presidents," said Laura Rhodes, a former executive committee member. "She has done a lot of the legwork and setting up things, so she's had her finger on the pulse for years and really knows what's going on."

Though Lewis is coy about her age, she has six children, 11 grandchildren and a newborn great-grandson. With her sizable family, she is accustomed to presiding over a large group. Yet accepting the new position wasn't easy.

"I really preferred being kind of in the background and assisting the presidents," she said. "They kind of twisted my arm and convinced me that I really had a lot to offer the county."

John Lewis, her husband of 28 years who is a former county NAACP president, said his wife would be effective as the group's leader.

"When I was president, she supported me and helped me quite a bit," he said. "She's very good at what she does."

Among the specific concerns that Jean Lewis hopes to tackle are better employment and affordable housing, key issues for improving the lives of residents.

"I'd like to see what we can do as far as jobs are concerned, not just menial jobs, but jobs that put faces on people [so that] when you go to a bank or whatever, you have people of color there in the front," she said.

There has been progress, Lewis said. She mentioned strides made by groups such as the county Board of Education and the Westminster Police Department, and businesses such as Random House.

That kind of networking is key, said Betty Lee, the NAACP branch's third vice president.

"She's [Lewis] also [been in] other volunteer organizations," Lee said. "She knows what to expect, because she's had that experience. She'll bring her expertise, her knowledge, and she's interested in keeping this organization strong."

One group that Lewis recently worked with was a minority family forum sponsored by Carroll County public schools, a venture that acted as a liaison between the school system and parents.

"We wanted ... to make people feel comfortable about what's going on," Lewis said. "Some parents don't feel comfortable because there's no person of color there in any capacity, from the maintenance people to the principal.

"You really want people ... to know that their child's education is important to everyone."

Lewis said she is looking forward to working with youth.

"[It is] a wonderful feeling to know that you've been able to touch a young person for the betterment of their life and our community," she said.

While the NAACP already gives scholarships to minority students, Lewis is also seeking grant money for student trips similar to her travels in Tennessee and Mississippi.

"It really was an enlightening thing for me," she said. "In today's environment, our young people are not aware of the sacrifices that were made for them to have the privileges that they have now. They need to go and see what the civil rights movement was about."

The Carroll NAACP branch will meet at 7 p.m. Feb. 22 at the Carroll Nonprofit Center, 255 Clifton Blvd., Westminster.

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