February 15th, 2011
04:43 PM ET
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) came into the James S. Brady Briefing Room after receiving the nation’s top civilian honor today. Surrounded by reporters, the civil rights icon described the honor as “unreal.”
He recounted his efforts during the civil rights movement, when endured more than 40 arrests and countless beatings. “I didn’t give up, I didn’t give in, I kept the faith, I kept my eyes on the prize,” he said solemnly. “It’s worth every step, every sit-in, every beating, every arrest.”
Nearly 50 years later, the man who was at times left for dead was seated along-side athletes, musicians, poets, and even a former president. Today he was one of just 15 to be honored by the President of the United States.
“Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind,” Mr. Obama said. “An American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”
When asked what it was like to receive such an award from the first African American president, Lewis said he felt blessed. “I started thinking about the first time I came to Washington in May of 1961 to go on the freedom rides. Then I came back here in June of 1963 to meet with President Kennedy, with Dr. King and several others. And I just kept thinking, ‘I wish Dr. King were here,’” he said.
With the medal around his neck, Lewis added the civil rights fight is not yet over. “The issue today is to see that all of our children –all of our young people – it doesn’t matter if they’re black or white or Latino or Asian American or Native American – get the best possible education.”