Georgia congressman, civil rights leader, rallies Beaufort voters

astice@islandpacket.comMay 5, 2013 

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Rep. John Lewis (Ga.) is shown here Sunday afternoon at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island after speaking at a potluck lunch in support of Elizabeth Colbert Busch, Democratic candidate for the 1st Congressional District.

SARAH WELLIVER — Staff photo Buy Photo

At the Penn Center on Sunday, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., recalled visiting the Saint Helena Island retreat for meetings with fellow civil rights leaders 50 years before.

"I remember coming here back when I had all my hair," he joked to a packed house after a potluck lunch.

The Georgia congressman and civil-rights pioneer was back to rally voters in support of Elizabeth Colbert Busch, who faces opponent Mark Sanford in Tuesday's special election to fill the 1st District congressional seat.

With plenty of clapping, foot-stomping and shouting, the campaign event had the feel of "an old-fashioned rally," in the words of former Penn Center executive director Emory Campbell.

"People aren't enthusiastic enough about voting, and they needed to hear from him the struggle it took for us to even get the right to vote," Campbell said.

Lewis told the crowd that Congress needs Colbert Busch and urged the audience to go to the polls.

He also reflected on the struggles he took part in to guarantee participation for African-Americans in democracy.

He literally wears the scars: as one of the original Freedom Riders, Lewis was severely beaten on March 7, 1965 on a day that became known as "Bloody Sunday" when he led more than 600 marchers from Selma to Montgomery.

As the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee and one of the "Big Six" civil rights movement leaders, Lewis faced violence many more times.

"During another period in my life, during the sit-ins, during the Freedom Rides, I was beaten, left bloody, left unconscious, got arrested, went to jail 40 times, almost died on that bridge in Selma, Alabama," Lewis said. "So I come here today, to Beaufort, to Penn Center and this part of South Carolina, to tell you it is time to turn the page."

Lewis, who was elected to Congress in 1986, described the race in the first congressional district as a chance for voters to "turn this nation around."

After Lewis' speech, which garnered several standing ovations, members of Colbert Busch's campaign team enlisted volunteers for canvassing and phone banks as part of the final push before the election.

As other speakers reminded the audience, voting for American Idol contestant Candice Glover - who performed at Penn Center on Saturday - isn't the only election to get excited for this week.

"Oh, I think everybody got fired up," Campbell said after Lewis' speech. "I hope it carries over into Tuesday."

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