I was a bright-eyed Clark Atlanta University student from Brownwood, Texas, eager to learn everything I could.  Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapel was a frequent destination.  It served as a place where I could see and learn from people whom I could have only imagined, as a girl from a small Texas town.

It was 1992 at Morehouse King Chapel, I watched bewilderedly, as a man of small stature was introducing the keynote speaker in a big, bold way.  Bill Clinton was running for President of the United States.  During his introduction the man was energetic, enthusiastic, passionate!  I thought to myself, “Who is this black man talking so excitedly about Bill Clinton?”  It was my initial, personal introduction to Congressman John Lewis.

Fast forward twenty years.  I was in the Atlanta Civic Center in 2003, celebrating the life of my first employer out of college, the Honorable Maynard Jackson, for whom I worked during his third and final term as Mayor of Atlanta.  Who walks in?  President Bill Clinton.  He leads the family processional as the escort of widow Mrs. Valerie Jackson.  I remember President Clinton’s speech vividly.  He talked about how Congressman John Lewis had Mayor Jackson meet him at the airport and introduce him to Atlanta.  One of their first stops was Morehouse College.  Clinton elaborated, “When I began my campaign, there were only two people who wholeheartedly believed in me:  my mother and John Lewis.”

A few years later, I am in Chicago attending the Rainbow/PUSH conference.    As we waited for President Clinton to arrive as the keynote speaker, Rev. Jesse Jackson introduced another speaker.  This man spoke passionately about Black and Brown relations.  The cadence of his message sounded familiar.  I immediately called my father, “Listen…He says he is from Texas and his last name is Andrade.”  

My father explained, “There is Bennie, Joel and John…”  Then, he firmly insisted, “Go introduce yourself!  Find out who he is!”

I considered the request bizarre, considering the size of Texas.  What are the chances this man could be from Brownwood?  

I met him and discovered that he was indeed Brownwood family, Dr. Juan Andrade, who grew up with my father.  I immediately became involved with his organization the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute (USHLI).  Years later at a USHLI national conference, board member José Ruano shared its history with me.  One fact I remember distinctly was that Dr. Andrade worked closely with Congressman John Lewis, which led to the founding of USHLI. 

This week, I called Dr. Andrade to request a podcast interview with him about his work with Congressman John Lewis.

What I learned was absolutely amazing!  We all know about John Lewis the student activist, his affection for the Clintons, and his distinction as the “Conscious of the Congress,” but do we know about Congressman John Lewis and his legacy in the political empowerment and leadership development of the Latino community?

Following the 1965 Voting Rights Act, black people throughout the South intensified their efforts to participate in the electoral process.  The Southern Regional Council, based in Atlanta, supported this effort, establishing the Voter Education Project (VEP).  In 1970, John Lewis became its director. 

In 1971, three Mexican American leaders from San Antonio—Jose Angel Gutierrez, Albert Peña and Joe Bernal—met with Lewis in Atlanta about expanding voter registration efforts to Texas and the Southwest.  Lewis agreed.  The leaders sent Juan Andrade to serve on Lewis’s staff, becoming Texas State Coordinator.  Andrade worked with Lewis at the VEP through the election of 1974.

In his interview Dr. Andrade revealed, “I learned my why from working with Congressman Lewis.”

According to Dr. Andrade, Congressman Lewis played a central role in developing Mexican American leaders such as he and Willie Velasquez.  He also helped to create Latino political institutions.  In fact, Lewis assisted Velasquez in establishing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) in San Antonio and Dr. Andrade in establishing the Midwest Voter Registration Project in Ohio, which later became the USHLI.  Both were modeled and named after the VEP.

Dr. Andrade explained, “John Lewis was a champion of voting rights for all people.”

Together the SVREP and USHLI have registered over five million Latino voters and trained over one million Latino leaders.  Most notably, Lewis, Velasquez and Andrade have all received Presidential medals (from Clinton and Obama) for their service to the nation.

Dr. Andrade said it best, “Yes, what John Lewis did to help Hispanic organizations to develop themselves and empower millions through the power of the vote and leadership development is, and may unfortunately remain, an unsung verse in the hymn that is his legacy…It was John who ignited the fuse that launched our mission.”

An American historian, Ramona Houston, PhD, PMP, specializes in civil rights and race relations, specifically its African American and Mexican American dimensions. Listen to the full interview with Dr. Juan Andrade on her podcast The Empowerment Zone with Ramona Houston

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