By Jeff Shearer
ATLANTA - The first time Rep. John Lewis was arrested for protesting discrimination, he was 20 years old, the same age as many in his audience.
Seated beside fellow civil rights legends Andrew Young and Dr. C.T. Vivian near the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Atlanta community known as Sweet Auburn, Lewis spoke to the football teams from Auburn and UCF, days before their matchup in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
It was at this church 50 years ago where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon in which he said, "Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love."
Two months later, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated. Young was with him that night in Memphis.
The student-athletes listened intently while the leaders imparted decades of wisdom.
Young, the former Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador, told the players that, as in football, teamwork was essential to the success of the civil rights movement.
"We functioned as a team, even when we disagreed," Young said. "Don't mess with your teammates. Stick together as a team. You change the world as a team."
Referring to himself and Ralph David Abernathy as King's "blocking backs," Young reminded his listeners of the value of every team member.
"That's a good role," he said. "You pick your place. You form a team anywhere you go. A group of people functioning as one. Remember the lessons you learn here [in football]."
'We kept our eyes on the prize'
Lewis said, when he encountered segregation growing up in Troy, Alabama, his parents told him, "that's just the way it is."
At 17, he met Rosa Parks. A year later, he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When Lewis told his family he felt called to make the South a better place, they begged him not to get into trouble.
Through sit-ins, freedom rides and Bloody Sunday in Selma, he was arrested 40 times in the 1960s.
"When you see something that is not right, not just, you have a moral obligation to speak up," Lewis said. "Dr. King said, `The time is always right to do right.'
"I wouldn't be here today, as a member of a Congress, if I hadn't spoken up. We didn't give up. We didn't give in. We kept our eyes on the prize."
In his 30 years as a congressman, Lewis said he has been arrested five more times for nonviolent protests.
"I'll probably get arrested again," he said. "I will not be afraid."
The youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963, Lewis reminded the players of something the march's leader, A. Philip Randolph, said.
"We may have come here on different ships, but we're all in the same boat now."
He then quoted Dr. King. "We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or else we will perish together as fools."
Concluding his remarks, Lewis raised his voice, exhorting the teams like a coach or a preacher.
"Stand up, be brave and courageous," Lewis said.
After the program, several Auburn players shook hands with Lewis, including linebacker Richard McBryde, who also grew up in Troy.
Nick Ruffin, a senior defensive back from nearby Duluth, Georgia, thanked Lewis for his service and sacrifices.
"When you have the opportunity to stand before your idol, to stand before somebody who paved the way for you to have the success you have now, you pay homage," Ruffin said. "It's just a matter of respect and understanding that without them, you probably wouldn't be where you're standing today."
Nearly a half-century after his death, King's legacy endures and inspires.
"Just to keep dreaming, keep going harder," senior safety Tray Matthews said. "Just fighting for what you want and what you believe in."
"It inspires me directly because without his influence, I wouldn't be doing what I am today," junior defensive lineman Dontavius Russell said. "I wouldn't be here playing college football and I wouldn't be at Auburn. The first black football player at Auburn came less than 50 years ago in James Owens. Without their influence, I wouldn't be able to be in the position and have the things I have today."
"If you look at pictures, you'll see all of the guys, the children and the women who are behind him when they're walking," Davis said. "You can tell that this is a powerful man. He did things the right way.
"When people gave hate, he gave love. When people gave violence, he gave peace. That's biblical to love thy neighbor as self, no matter the race. The leadership role is something I always cherish with him."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer