TROY, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama university that in the 1950s refused to admit the late Congressman John Lewis has dedicated a main campus building in honor of the late civil rights icon.
University officials dedicated John Robert Lewis Hall in a ceremony Friday that included congressional representatives and members of the Lewis family.
“It is the right thing to do to name this building for a great man,” Troy Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr. said in a statement.
The Troy University Board of Trustees in August voted to rename historic Bibb Graves Hall — named for a former Alabama governor who had ties to the Ku Klux Klan— in honor of Lewis. While Lewis became a longtime Georgia congressman, he was a native of Pike County, Alabama, and grew up not far from the university. The civil rights icon died July 17 at the age of 80.
Lewis as a teen applied to the then-all-white university but did not get a reply. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave him the nickname the “boy from Troy” at their first meeting in 1958 in which they discussed a possible lawsuit against the university for its policy of not admitting Black students. He decided against it because of the concern of retaliation against his family in the majority-white county.
Lewis later became a leader of the Freedom Riders, often facing violent and angry crowds, and was jailed dozens of times. In 1965, his skull was fractured on the bridge in Selma when law enforcement officers beat civil rights marchers in a melee that became known as Bloody Sunday.
Both Troy University and the city of Troy later honored Lewis. One of several memorial services for him was held on the campus in July following his death.
Trustee Lamar P. Higgins said in a statement that the building represents a man who paved the way for others.
“If it weren’t for John Lewis, a lot of great things about this country would not have happened. We’re grateful for all that he has done.”
David Bibb Graves served two terms as Alabama governor in the 1920s and 1930s. According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Graves was the Grand Cyclops of the Montgomery chapter of the Ku Klux Klan when he took office. The department said he also advocated some policies that were considered progressive at the time including increased aid to educational and social services.