2004 Bruce F. Vento Public Service Award: Congressman John Lewis of Georgia

Reception And Dinner To Honor Congressman John Lewis - April 22, 2004

johnlewisdinner2004-02Congressman John Lewis Receives Highest Conservation Award for Parks Efforts presented by NPT's Paul Duffendack and Paul Pritchard - Photo by Chris Pritchard

(See transcript of his acceptance speech below)

Congressman John Lewis
April 22, 2004

Thank you . . . for those kind words of introduction. It is truly an honor to receive this award, named after my dear friend, the late Bruce Vento.

Congressman Vento was a good friend of mine.  When I first came to Congress, I had the privilege of serving with him on the House Resources Committee, and I got to know him very well. He was someone I deeply admired - someone I looked to for leadership and advice on environmental and conservation issues that came before Congress.


He was an environmental stalwart - a Member who stood second to no one when it came to protecting our environment, strengthening our parks, and preserving our national heritage. He was the environmental conscience of the House, and he continues to inspire Members of Congress - and people throughout the country - who are fighting to make our nation a little cleaner and a little greener for our children and generations yet unborn.

To receive a conservation award named after Bruce Vento is quite an honor. Thank you.

And let me tell you, we could use Bruce Vento in the Congress right now.

We have our work cut out for us. Our parks - our national heritage - are not getting the resources that they need and the support that they deserve.
Unfortunately, as you know all too well, there are some in Washington - in this Administration - that do not see our national parks and public lands as the treasure that they are. The national parks, national forests, and national monuments belong to all of us.

As elected officials - as public servants - it is our responsibility to preserve these treasures for all the people we serve - not just the privileged few. We did not inherit these treasures only to sell them to the highest bidder.

My friends, we owe it to our forefathers and foremothers - we owe it to our grandsons and our granddaughters - to not just preserve this legacy, but to build upon it. To do our part to create a system of national parks, recreation areas and historic sites second to none.

The national park system is a string of jewels representing the very best of America.  Our parks represent the best of our history, our heritage and our landscape. From the Battlefield at Gettysburg - to the Moton Field in Tuskegee - to the natural wonders of Yellowstone, we are our parks - and they are our legacy.

Like our government, our public lands are of the people, by the people and for the people.

Rich and poor - old and young - black, white, Hispanic, Asian and Native American - we are one people - and we all own our public lands.

And with this diversity comes a responsibility to create a national park system that reflects the great mosaic that constitutes the American Quilt. We see this diversity in the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site in Atlanta, the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail, and the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Hardy, Virginia.
And as our national park system grows - and it will grow - I know that we will see monuments to those who most recently arrived at our shores, yearning to be free.

For today they already are leaving their mark on our great nation - making us a richer and stronger people.

That we have such a treasure to pass on to future generations is a testament to the foresight, the planning and the political will of those who have come before us. People like Bruce Vento, Gaylord Nelson and Morris Udall. People stretching all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt and even Ulysses S. Grant, who created Yellowstone National Park over 130 years ago.
Despite the unbelievable generosity of those who came before us, we must not be content with what we have. We must continue the struggle.

We must redouble our efforts - not just to protect what we have been given - but to expand this legacy for future generations.

During the 1960's, I was part of a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens that worked to change the world. An earlier generation had a dream - a dream that we could build the Beloved Community - an all-inclusive community - a community at peace with itself.

During the 60's, I saw many young people grow up by sitting down. By sitting down and sitting in, they were standing up and speaking out for what is best in America. Justice. Equality.


Because these young people - because people like you - decided to act, we witnessed nothing less than a non-violent revolution under the rule of law. A revolution of values, a revolution of ideas.

I often think that if we had the technology we have today, I don't know what the Civil Rights Movement could have accomplished. We didn't have a web site, a fax machine, or a cellular telephone. We didn't even have CNN or computers.

But we had ourselves - ordinary people - men and women just like you - fighting for a just cause.

So I say to each and every one of you here tonight -- it is your generation's turn.

It is up to you to make a difference. It is up to you to change the world. Find a way to get in the way.

When I was growing up in Alabama, my mother and father would tell me not to get in trouble.  But I got in the way; I got in trouble.  And it was good trouble - it was necessary trouble. You must be maladjusted to the problems and conditions of today.

As Horace Mann, the father of modern education in America, once said, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."

Find your issue, find your cause, and make it your passion.

For most of you, that passion is our nation's park system. Take that passion, and win some victory for humanity.

I want to close with a story from my childhood, a parable for our nation's struggle to overcome the issues that divide us and work for a better, cleaner and greener world.


My friends, the storms may come. The winds may blow. The thunder may roll. The lightening may flash. And the rain may beat down on this old house - call it the house of the National Park Trust.

Call it the house of Yosemite, or the Everglades, or the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail. Call it the American house. Call it the world house - we must never, ever leave the house.
Maybe, just maybe, our forefathers and foremothers all came to this land in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now.
And I am proud to have the National Park Trust in my boat - and in my house. I am proud to join hands with you - to use our bodies and our minds to hold our little house down.

Working together, we will continue to win victories for humanity, to build a new and better world - to build what I like to call the Beloved Community - a truly interracial democracy - a nation at peace with itself. A nation where we can visit our historic sites, explore our national heritage, and preserve our public lands for unborn generations.

So I say to each of you tonight. Don't give out. Don't give up.  Don't give in. Do not get lost in a sea of despair.

Walk with the wind. Keep your eyes on the prize. And let the spirit of history, our heritage and our parks be your guide. Thank you.
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