This article originally appeared on the Greenwich Time website; to read it in full, please visit the newspaper's website.
When Angela Lewis was born, her father was in Oxford, Ohio, training students who had plans to volunteer during Freedom Summer.
The June 1964 campaign was launched during the Civil Rights Movement by activists who wanted to help black people register to vote, while also teaching them about history and politics.
Volunteers had to undergo extensive training. They also had to be prepared to be beaten, jailed, spat on, attacked by police dogs and sprayed with powerful water hoses that could cause severe injuries, Lewis told a group of students in Greenwich Friday.
But none of those threats deterred the volunteers, who ended up leading a crucial, though painful, step toward the passage of more equal civil and voting rights for black Americans and other oppressed groups.
“But what we see is courage at its finest, in those students that decided to (go) anyway.”
On the very first day of Freedom Summer, the volunteer group’s fears became a reality. A Ku Klux Klan leader kidnapped and murdered three of the group’s volunteers, which included Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, Lewis’ father.
“My dad never got the opportunity to meet me,” said Lewis. “And other than seeing my dad in pictures, I’ve never seen my dad.”
She spoke to a group of about 700 people, at the all-girls independent Catholic school, just three days ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. She left students with one message — they should spread love and forgiveness always, even in times of great pain, tragedy and despair.
“If I could leave one message with you all this morning, that message would be to always let love be your guide, in your decisions, and in your dealings with people,” she said.
“Without forgiveness and a humble spirit, you will limit how far you will go in life and in society,” she said. “Forgiveness has to be a choice that you make, and you practice forgiveness until it becomes you. ... No, that is not always easy, but I promise you that if you do it, it will become you and it will get easier.”
Shortly after what came to be known as the “Freedom Summer murders,” Lewis was split from her father’s side of the family. Her dad’s mother moved to New York after receiving numerous death threats against her and the extending family. But in New York, the threats continued. It wasn’t until about a decade later that Lewis was reconnected with her paternal side of the family, she said.
In 2005, Lewis attended the trial of Earl Ray Killen, the then 80-year-old Klan leader accused of killing her father, Goodman and Schwerner. Killen was convicted of arranging the murders and was sentenced to 60 years in prison, where he died in 2018 at 92.
Lewis said, even in that moment, she was able to forgive Killen.
“My prayer is that he repented and made all well with our creator,” she wrote in a Facebook post on the day Killen died.
“A great joy for me would be for me my dad and Edgar Ray to embrace each other in heaven,” she said. “I look forward to the day that I will meet my dad. I pray for the Killen family. Spread love.”
Each year, Sacred Heart Greenwich invites a different speaker for its Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prayer service, said David Olson, head of the middle school and assistant head of school.
“We think it fits in so beautifully to the mission of our school to be aware of the marginalized in the world and our efforts to build community,” he said.
A group of 15 students and five faculty members participated in the inaugural Sacred Heart Civil Rights Pilgrimage, where they first met Lewis. The 2018 spring break trip spanned through Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Meridian and Memphis.
The trip was aimed at providing students with direct experience to explore the “difficult” history around race in America through visiting museums, historical sites and veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, said teacher Sam McCoy, who led the trip.
Yve Lafontant, one of the students selected for the pilgrimage, said the trip made her appreciate life as a free black woman in America. It made her reflect on the hardship and violence activists — such as Martin Luther King Jr. — had to endure in order to achieve justice and greater equality for marginalized individuals and people of color.
“At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, I saw the names of all the victims of lynchings from 1877 to 1950, etched on bricks that hung from the ceiling,” said Lafontant.
“Being in the presence of this great historic moment, I had plenty of mixed emotions, because of their suffering. But I also felt a great deal of power because of how much African-Americans had to overcome, despite (their) pain.”