U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., spoke at Bates College in 2016. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ impact on Maine political leaders and young people alike was powerful.

One of the Legislature’s two Black members, Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, said Saturday he had been “grieving all day” over Lewis’ death. He called Lewis “a man of unparalleled stature, a saint, if there ever was one. His passing is a sad day for America.”

Lewis received an honorary degree at Bates College in Lewiston in 2016, and gave a commencement address in which he urged the 462 graduates to serve humanity. Bates was founded by abolitionists in 1855, and has been open to students of all racial backgrounds ever since.

In his speech, which brought several standing ovations, Lewis spoke of how Martin Luther King Jr. took him under his wing. The Georgia congressman told the students to “be a headlight, not a taillight,” and he encouraged them to follow in his footsteps by getting “into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”

“You must find a way to get in the way,” he said.

He also spoke of the great influence that his mentor, a notable Bates graduate, had had on him: Benjamin Mays, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Bates in 1920 and became a preacher, civil rights activist, and president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. Lewis said it was Bates College that gave “this man, this beautiful spirit, this beautiful soul, son of slaves” the tools to do his work and “become emancipated.”

“If it hadn’t been for Dr. Mays, I am not sure there would have been a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Lewis said.

State Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, meets Georgia congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in October 2015. From left are Hickman, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Lewis. Photo by Jop Blom

Hickman met Lewis in Washington in October 2015, after being nominated by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, for an Angels in Adoption Congressional Award for his work to outlaw unauthorized custody transfers of children. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, helped arrange the meeting between Hickman and Lewis on the steps of the U.S. Capitol after a voting session.

“In front of her and Congresswoman Gwen Moore, who represents the Milwaukee district where I grew up, John Lewis grabbed my elbow as he looked me directly in the eye,” Hickman recalled Saturday. “When a Black man, an elder, grabs your elbow, he’s telling you that he entrusts you to carry forward the work. The moment took my breath away. We will continue to make good trouble, necessary trouble, and remake this county we so deeply love live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. John Lewis will live in our hearts and souls forever. His truth is marching on.”

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