Friday, July 22, 2016 – 7:30 to 9:30pm
Georgia actress Brenda Bynum will perform a one-woman tribute to the life and career of Abingdon resident Helen Matthews Lewis. Musician Don Saliers will intermingle period music into the show to reflect the changing times that Lewis lived through.
Often referred to one of the founders of Appalachian Studies, Helen Matthews Lewis linked scholarship with activism and encouraged deeper analysis of the region. Lewis shaped the field of Appalachian Studies by emphasizing community participation and challenging traditional perceptions of the region and its people.
Lewis was involved in multiple struggles for social justice throughout the South during the second half of the twentieth century to the present. Lewis’s involvement spanned an array of issues: civil rights, community empowerment, women’s leadership, environmental justice, health equality, and the role of universities in fostering social change.
Lewis’s lifelong commitment to social change is best illuminated by her assertion that you “have to look for opportunities where you can create a little trouble, to make changes where you are… . Where you are, you dig in and do what you can.”
The daughter of a rural letter carrier and farmer, Helen Lewis was born in 1924 in Nicholson, Georgia, not far from Athens. As a college student in Forsyth, Georgia, Lewis experienced a spiritual awakening while listening to a sermon by a visiting preacher named Clarence Jordan, who, one year later, would found Koinonia, the world’s first Christian interracial commune, near Plains, Georgia. The subject of his talk was the Good Samaritan, depicted as a black person in Jordan’s “Cotton Patch” version. That moment, she remembers, her life’s purpose became clear: fighting racial and economic injustice.
After graduating in 1947 from Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, she moved to Atlanta and became involved in the “Children’s Crusade,” an effort to register young voters across the state. (Georgia was the first state to grant the vote to 18 year olds.) She had her first run-in with the law when she was arrested with other activists for participating in an interracial student political meeting: the charge was “holding a parade without a permit.” Helen Lewis’s days of activism had begun.
Lewis married and moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, with her new husband, who attended graduate school there; they both eventually settled down with jobs at Clinch Valley College in Wise, Virginia. There, Lewis discovered the landscape, the people, and the culture of Appalachia. It was also home to some of the most impoverished and isolated communities in the nation.
From the beginning, Lewis was powerfully drawn to Appalachia’s people and traditions, and she came to despise the exploitation that she blamed for many of the region’s problems – calling the coal and chemical industries modern-day versions of colonialism.
While holding down a job at Clinch Valley College’s library, Lewis began her graduate studies in sociology. As a fledgling writer, speaker, educator, and community activist, she was exploring a new kind of scholarship that went by the name Appalachian Studies. When Lewis left Georgia, she took with her the same passion for social justice first ignited by her encounters with the system of Jim Crow. Through this lens, Lewis studied Virginia’s coal miners and their families and became a champion of their rights. She earned her doctorate from the University of Kentucky.
Over her life Lewis has been involved with many major social justice organizations in the region –Highlander Center, Appalshop, Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center, Appalachian Studies Association – and numerous community groups including the Ivanhoe Civic League and Big Creek People in Action.
Lewis is the author of ten books and numerous articles. A book about her life, Living Social Justice in Appalachia: Helen Matthews Lewis, a collection of Lewis’s writings and memories that document her life and work, was published in 2012 by the University Press of Kentucky.
Lewis describes herself as “an educator and social activist, whether I am teaching a class, working with a community group, fighting a toxic waste dump, planning a film series, networking health professionals, or leading a workshop.”
The title of the program “What Am I Supposed To Do Now?” refers to Lewis’s unceasing struggle to tackle the tough issues of the region. This spring, at age 91, Lewis was a discussion participant at a showing in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, of the film After Coal, featuring an economic issue that both the Appalachian region in the US and Wales in the UK are struggling with.
Don Saliers is the William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Theology and Liturgy, Emeritus at Emory University, Atlanta. He has received awards from Yale University and Emory University for his teaching and scholarship. He is the prolific author of books and essays, including A Song to Sing, A Life to Live. He is an accomplished classical and jazz keyboard player. He continues to serve as artistic director of the Emory Chamber Players in addition to leading religious retreats and song festivals across the country.