Rep. John Lewis was the keynote speaker at the 2012 Diverse Leadership Conference at Emory University. PHOTO: Moses Robinson

“Leaders must lead, whether in business, politics or education. You must find a way to get in the way!” said civil rights icon and U.S. congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) at the seventh annual Diverse Leadership Conference, held on Feb. 24, 2012 at Emory University.

This year’s theme was global business awareness.

During his keynote address, Lewis highlighted the importance of courage in leadership.

“I was arrested 40 times in the ‘60s, beaten bloody and left unconscious on that bridge in Selma [Ala.].” he noted. “But it was necessary for us to stand up.”

Growing up in Troy, Ala., in the 1940s and ‘50s, Lewis literally saw the signs of segregation everywhere – signs denoting separate areas for blacks and whites in movie theatres and restrooms.

“I asked my mother and father, ‘why segregation?’ And they told me, that’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way; don’t get into trouble. But I got in the way. I got in trouble,” Lewis said.  “But it was good trouble. Sometimes you have to move out on the edge with faith and hope.”

Lewis reminisced about hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts as a teenager and being inspired to try and integrate his hometown library.  After finishing high school, he applied to Troy State University but never received a reply.  He wrote to King for help and King wrote back, sending a round-trip bus ticket and an invitation to meet with him in Montgomery.

Meeting King at the age of 18 was the beginning of Lewis’ involvement in the civil rights movement.

Other conference speakers included Jeff Rosenweig, associate professor of international business and finance, Goizueta Business School; Bill Hague, executive vice president of AT&T mobility and consumer markets; Jagdish Sheth, Charles H. Kellstadt professor of marketing, Goizueta Business School; William Cruz, president, TCB Consulting and Cyril Turner, president of Delta Airline Global Services.

Turner gave seven career lessons he’d learned along the way, including immediately putting into practice what is learned in class and gaining experience in a cross-functional setting. Sessions on breaking through the glass ceiling; the power of ideas in transforming businesses and the impact of global society on race rounded out the conference.

– Kathryn Whitbourne