A photo of Chancellor Gene Block bestowing the UCLA Medal on U.S. Rep. and civil rights icon John Lewis.

Remembering John Lewis

A photo of Chancellor Gene Block bestowing the UCLA Medal on U.S. Rep. and civil rights icon John Lewis.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block bestows the UCLA Medal on Congressman John Lewis. (Photo Credit: Marc Roseboro/UCLA)

Patricia Turner is professor of African American studies in the UCLA College and professor of world arts and culture/dance in the School of the Arts and Architecture.

As I was driving from UCLA to my home in the Valley, on April 10, 2017, I was warmed by the knowledge that my meeting with Congressman John Lewis constituted a personal milestone that I would always treasure. With the news in December 2019 of his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, I was moved again by the quiet power of the man I had studied and taught about and the man I got to watch in action that day two years prior. Now, with the news of Lewis’ death, I have lost a personal hero.

As a faculty member, I discourage my students from over-indulging in hero worship. All too often the men and women whom we read about don’t match the ones we meet. They are —like us — flawed, human and self-serving.

But I couldn’t take my own advice with Congressman Lewis. I had taught about him numerous times in my African American Studies courses, drawing the students’ attention to his unswerving commitment to nonviolence, even when others in the then nascent Black Power movement were trying to marginalize him for his convictions. The 1965 image of him in his tan raincoat and with his backpack on being savagely beaten while marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is seared in my mind.

Several decades later, I heard Lewis speak at a Smithsonian event on the mall featuring samples of the AIDS quilt, and I, like almost everyone else under the tent, was moved to tears to hear him talk about the honor he felt that his home district in Georgia had been selected as the one to care and preserve such an important expression of art and social justice. And now, no trip to D.C. is complete for me without a stop by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, an extraordinarily significant cultural resource that he shepherded through all of the requisite partisan and bureaucratic challenges that come with erecting a new museum in Washington.

When the call went out at UCLA to nominate deserving individuals for our highest honor, the UCLA Medal, I nominated Lewis and pitched bestowing the medal on him at our annual Winston C. Doby Distinguished Lecture, an annual event conceived by UCLA’s Academic Advancement Program in honor of a leader who dedicated his career to increasing student diversity and access at UCLA and throughout the University of California system. Within the acreage of UCLA, Doby was a John Lewis.

One of the first senior African American administrators on the campus, Doby fought tirelessly on behalf of all of students but he had a determined goal of increasing the number of Black admitted students and graduates. When Proposition 209 threatened to curtail the number of Black admits, Doby assembled an impressive and generous cohort of alumni and raised significant funds from them to underwrite scholarships for Black students — a practice that required a significant work around to be both legal and compliant with the new legislation. Hundreds of Black students have UCLA on their transcripts because of Doby’s efforts.

Lewis accepted our invitation and I knew as the senior dean of the UCLA College and the person who nominated him, I would get some face time with him. Inspired by his comments in his moving autobiography, “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement,” I thought I would give him copies of my books and tell him that the work he and his generation had accomplished enabled me to achieve so much in a realm that was forbidden to us before the civil rights movement. He had noted in his autobiography, that his collection of books by Black authors was one of his most prized possessions. But then I realized that my story was the story of so many of my Black colleagues at UCLA. So I put out a call asking everyone to donate books for a gift.

We constructed a suitably academic backdrop for the question-and-answer period on the stage of Royce Hall — oversized leather chairs framed by bookshelves. At the end of a candid Q&A, Professor Tyrone Howard, who now holds the Pritzker Family Endowed Chair in Strengthening Families, told Lewis that the books weren’t props, they were all written by faculty of color at UCLA who agreed that his work on the front lines enabled our own in our laboratories and libraries and that we were sending them to Georgia for his library. He was quite moved.

I did get my face time with him and had no problem getting him to sign my copy of “Wind.” He asked about my teaching, and when I mentioned how much my students enjoyed reading about Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a relatively unknown but vastly important figure in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, his face lit up. I had been temporarily uneasy about telling a civil rights icon how much my students liked someone else from the movement but he turned out to be an ardent and hardcore Robinson fan and showered me with praise for making sure my students knew about her.

At the luncheon, he was seated at the table with his long-time mentor and lecturer at UCLA, the Rev. James Lawson, Chancellor Gene Block, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Meyer and Renee Luskin, myself and others. The Doby family was spread out at other tables but when I called them up to present him with the plaque that comes with the lecture, he professed admiration for all he had learned about Winston Doby. He offered to host them at the museum should they come to D.C. Meyer and Renee Luskin were so moved that they created a scholarship that now underwrites the cost of books for a UCLA student admitted from his congressional district.

In pre-event planning, we had fretted about security. In prior months, Lewis had been in an inelegant exchange with then President-elect Donald Trump. We didn’t get a lot of guidance from his staff. We opted for the regular “important speaker” contingent in the hall itself and arranged for one plain-clothes security officer to be around in the green room, backstage and at the luncheon. After all of the luncheon guests had departed, the man working security came up to him and said, “Congressman Lewis, can I have a picture with you?” Lewis thanked him for his service, handed me the officer’s cell phone and smiled with the profound sincerity, respect and dignity we had seen all day.

The world has truly lost a bright light, who provided an example by action, with dignity and grace.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

In memoriam: Professor Mark Sawyer, a champion for access and diversity

UCLA faculty, students and staff in the Division of Social Sciences in the UCLA College are mourning the loss of Mark Sawyer, who was a professor of African-American studies and political science

Gift establishes endowed chair in history

Nickoll Family Chair to be awarded to renowned history scholar and UCLA faculty member


Ben Nickoll

History alumnus Ben Nickoll ’86 was brought up in a family in which helping others and giving back were the norm. Now, he has given back to his alma mater by establishing the Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History, which will have a focus on women’s history. The inaugural holder will be renowned scholar and writer Brenda Stevenson, who will be formally installed on October 24.

“I am proud to have known Ben Nickoll since my days as Dean of Social Sciences,” said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott Waugh. “His professional career, values and character are testaments to the importance of a liberal arts education.”

He said that the gift would help to ensure the quality and relevance of UCLA’s history department for decades to come.

“As a historian myself, I am deeply touched.” He said.

History chair Stephen Aron said that the gift would bolster the department’s efforts to attract and retain world-class faculty like Stevenson, whose research focuses on the history of slavery in the U.S. and Atlantic World, particularly of enslaved women.

“With this wonderful gift, Ben Nickoll has signaled his belief in the enduring value of a history degree, of excellent teaching, and of studying the past to shape a better future,” Aron said.

Nickoll grew up near UCLA, so it was a familiar fixture in his childhood. He recalled skateboarding through the campus, hanging out in Westwood with friends and attending basketball games with his dad at Pauley Pavilion. His parents were actively involved in the local community and in politics.

“They stood up for what they believed and gave to causes where they could have an impact,” he said.

When he first enrolled at UCLA, he had no idea what he wanted to study.

“Then I took a class taught by Prof. Roger McGrath, a gifted storyteller who brought historical characters and events to life in the classroom,” Nickoll said. “I was hooked and became a history major soon after that.”

After graduation, despite a lack of investment experience, Nickoll moved across country and talked his way into a job on Wall Street. He held high-level positions at top investment banks before co-founding investment firm Ore Hill in 2002. After that firm was sold in 2011, he founded El Faro Partners, an investment firm focused on real estate, private equity, credit and agriculture.

Nickoll is a member of the history department’s Board of Advisors and gave the commencement address at the department’s graduation ceremony in 2008. He is also a founding member of the board of the Fink Center for Finance and Investments at the Anderson School of Business.

“My wife, Chrissy, and I acknowledge that there are many worthy causes and organizations,” Nickoll said. “We believe in focusing the majority of our energy in our local communities, not just financially but also with action when possible.”

And he said he felt the time was right to make a major gift to his home department at UCLA.

If the liberal arts and subjects like history continue to be overlooked in favor of the sciences and engineering, he said, students might not develop a sufficiently broad, informed world view.

“I believe that the study of history is relevant to all aspects of life,” he said. “Take the investment world—an investor needs to understand context and how elements affecting past performance can affect a company today and in the future.”

For her part, Stevenson said that the Nickoll chair would allow her to take her work to a different level.


Brenda Stevenson

“Thanks to the Nickoll chair, I will now have the resources to undertake larger projects more efficiently and expediently,” Stevenson said. “I’m also going to be hiring some undergraduates to do a long-term project that deals with the history of racial violence in America. Private funding is so important for research initiatives that really do make positive contributions to our lives and to the world and to educating students.”

A professor of history and of African American studies at UCLA, she is the author of several books, including Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South.

Although most of Stevenson’s work focuses on the 19th century, and particularly the Southern U.S., she received the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism award for her 2013 book about more recent events in Los Angeles, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots. Stevenson has been awarded several fellowships, including a Guggenheim in 2015.

Stevenson is at work on two new books: a history of the slave family from the colonial through the antebellum eras and a history of slave women. Her work continues to shed light—on the page and in the classroom—on important parts of human history with a view to creating a more just society.

From wrongfully jailed to artist, activist and UCLA professor

A new professor in UCLA’s African-American Studies department is rallying with students and faculty around increasingly visible injustices in the U.S. criminal justice system. It’s a topic near and dear to Bryonn Bain’s heart.

UCLA senior has a new flight plan

Anyadike made national headlines in summer 2009, at age 15, by piloting a single-engine, four-seater Cessna 172 from Compton, California, to Newport News, Virginia, and back, making scheduled stops in a dozen cities along the way.

Hollywood Diversity Report: Mounting evidence that more diverse casts help the bottom line

The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies has published its third annual Hollywood Diversity Report. The comprehensive study, subtitled “Busine$$ as Usual?,” examines the relationships between diversity and profitability in Hollywood, and finds once again that audiences, regardless of their race, prefer diverse content.

Oscars Still So White: Academy Nominates Nearly All White Actors, Again

For the second year in a row, no non-white actor was among the 20 acting nominations for the Academy Awards. NPR’s Kelly McEvers talks about the awards and Hollywood’s struggles with diversity with Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

UCLA faculty voice: Race, dignity and luck

For more than a year, this country has witnessed an extraordinary display by young folks protesting our nation’s racial disregard toward and violence against black bodies. Police brutality is being captured with greater frequency on cameras, proving true what black folks have complained about for decades.