UNC Asheville to Award Civil Rights Activist and Politician John R. Lewis Posthumously the Chancellor’s Medallion and Honorary Degree at May 2021 Commencement Ceremony

portrait of Linda Earley ChastangLinda Earley Chastang
April 20, 2021

UNC Asheville will award John R. Lewis, civil rights activist, politician and statesman, posthumously the Chancellor’s Medallion and the Honorary Doctorate of Laws at the Class of 2021 Commencement Ceremony taking place on May 8 on the UNC Asheville Quad. On behalf of Representative Lewis, Linda Earley Chastang, Esq., CEO for the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation, Inc., will serve as the Commencement speaker and recipient of the UNC Asheville Chancellor’s Medallion, the University’s highest non-academic distinction, given to recognize individuals who demonstrate distinguished national service and leadership.

UNC Asheville Chancellor Nancy J. Cable will preside over the Commencement events where approximately 500 graduates of the UNC Asheville Class of 2021 and their guests will celebrate their University accomplishments in two ceremonies, at 8:30 a.m. and noon, to accommodate COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Chancellor Cable also will award honorary degrees to Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2019–Present, member of the Academy of Arts and Letters 2021; Mel Chin, conceptual visual artist, author, and member of the Academy of Arts and Letters 2021; and N. King Prather, former North Carolina Blue Cross Blue Shield General Counsel, UNC Asheville Board of Trustees Member Emeritus, and parent of three UNC Asheville graduates.


Representative John R. Lewis, civil rights activist, politician and statesman, will receive posthumously the Honorary Doctorate in Laws.

John Robert Lewis (February 21, 1940–July 17, 2020) was a revered leader in the civil rights movement whose wisdom, courage and moral clarity earned him the nickname “the conscience of the Congress” during his 17 terms as a representative of Georgia’s fifth congressional district. Advocating nonviolence “not just as a technique, but as a way of life,” Lewis endured repeated beatings and arrests while leading civil rights protests during the 1960s and 1970s. A founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when he was just 19, Lewis took the lead in organizing the freedom rides, sit-ins, marches, and other demonstrations that were part of the SNCC’s drive to end racial segregation and secure voting rights for millions of disenfranchised African Americans. “I have said this before, and I will say it again,” Lewis said in June 2019. “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.”

In 1965, Lewis joined other organizers to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to fight for voting rights. On Sunday, March 7, 1965, a day that would become known as Bloody Sunday, Alabama state troopers attacked unarmed marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with billy clubs and tear gas. Lewis, bloodied and bruised with a fractured skull, refused to rest. After it was ruled that the demonstrators had a constitutional right to march, the Selma to Montgomery marches continued with federal protection. Together these events led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Recipient on behalf of the family and colleagues of Representative Lewis: Linda Earley Chastang, Esq.

Linda Earley Chastang serves in the role of Chief Executive Officer for the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation, Inc.  Helping to build the infrastructure for and provide leadership to the organization, she ensures that its mission and vision embody and advance the ideals to which John Lewis dedicated his life.

Chastang twice-served as Chief of Staff to Congressman John Lewis, who served on the Public Works and Transportation Committee, the Ways and Means Committee and in the House Leadership. She assisted him in developing and implementing his legislative and political agendas, analyzing the congressional environment and proposed legislation, and providing advice on strategies to achieve legislative and political priorities. She also worked as associate staff on the Ways and Means Committee and Tax Counsel for Congressman Lewis.

Chastang was a member of the founding faculty of the College of Law at Georgia State University, where she taught Administrative Law, Antitrust, Consumer Protection and Legal Writing.  Prior to that, she was at the Federal Trade Commission and served on the trial team for a long-running, complex antitrust case involving the acquisition of supermarkets and its economic impact.

She served as Executive Vice President and General Counsel for the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, which represents the nation’s 120 historically and predominantly Black colleges and universities.

She also served as special advisor to the Chairman of President Obama’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs, Assistant Attorney General for the State of Florida, and Staff Director for the newly-created Joint Federal Relations Committee.

She received a Bachelor’s Degree at Sarah Lawrence College, a Juris Doctorate at Howard University and a Master of Laws degree in Tax at Emory University. She was a Congressional Fellow in the Kennedy School of Government’s Executive Program for Senior Managers in Government.  She returned to the Kennedy School in its Executive Program on Economic Development for Community Builders.

Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2019–Present, member of the Academy of Arts and Letters 2021, will receive the Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters.

Joy Harjo is an internationally renowned performer and writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She is serving her second term as the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. In 2018 she spoke at UNC Asheville as a visiting writer

The author of nine books of poetry, including the highly acclaimed An American Sunrise, several plays and children’s books, and two memoirs, Crazy Brave and Poet Warrior: A Call for Love and Justice, her many honors include the Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award, two NEA fellowships, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. As a musician and performer, Harjo has produced seven award-winning music albums including her newest, I Pray for My Enemies. She is Executive Editor of the anthology When the Light of the World was Sub­dued, Our Songs Came Through — A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry and the editor of Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry, the companion anthology to her signature Poet Laureate project. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Board of Directors Chair of the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, and holds a Tulsa Artist Fellowship. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Mel Chin, conceptual visual artist and author, and member of the Academy of Arts and Letters 2021, will receive the Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts

Mel Chin was born in Houston, Texas in 1951. Chin’s art, which is both analytical and poetic, evades easy classification. He is known for the broad range of approaches in his art, including works that require multi-disciplinary, collaborative teamwork and works that conjoin cross-cultural aesthetics with complex ideas.

Chin also insinuates art into unlikely places, including destroyed homes, toxic landfills, and even popular television, investigating how art can provoke greater social awareness and responsibility. He developed Revival Field (1989-ongoing), a project that has been a pioneer in the field of “green remediation,” the use of plants to remove toxic, heavy metals from the soil. From 1995-1998 he formed the collective, the GALA Committee, that produced In the Name of the Place, a conceptual public art project conducted on American prime-time television. In KNOWMAD, Chin worked with software engineers to create a video game based on rug patterns of nomadic people facing cultural disappearance. His film, 9-11/9-11, a hand-drawn, 24 minute, joint Chilean/USA Production, won the prestigious Pedro Sienna Award, for Best Animation, National Council for the Arts and Cultures, Chile, in 2007. Chin also promotes “works of art” that have the ultimate effect of benefiting science, as in Revival Field, and also in the recent Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill Project, an attempt to make New Orleans a lead-safe city (see www.fundred.org.) These projects are consistent with a conceptual philosophy, which emphasizes the practice of art to include sculpting and bridging the natural and social ecology.

In 2018, Chin’s Wake sculptural installation, designed, engineered, sculpted and fabricated in UNC Asheville’s STEAM Studio, was unveiled in New York City Times Square, after nearly a year of collaborative work. Chin served as the University’s Black Mountain College Legacy Fellow in fall semester 2017, and UNC Asheville students and faculty from mechatronics engineering, art, and other disciplines worked closely with Chin on the project, which was the largest public art installation ever in Times Square.

Chin’s work was documented in the popular PBS program, Art of the 21st Century. Chin has received numerous awards and grants from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council for the Arts, Art Matters, Creative Capital, and the Penny McCall, Pollock/Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Rockefeller and Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundations, among others. He is a 2019 MacArthur Fellow.

King Prather, former North Carolina Blue Cross Blue Shield General Counsel, UNC Asheville Board of Trustees Member Emeritus, parent of three UNC Asheville graduates, will receive the Honorary Doctorate in Law and Public Policy.

King Prather is retired Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Blue Cross Blue Shield of N.C. and a board member at Higher Ed Works. He is currently a member of Gov. Roy Cooper’s DRIVE Task Force, working to increase underrepresented individuals in teaching for the state of N.C. He is a fierce advocate for public education and racial equity. His most recent opinion piece, We are all ancestors of ourselves, was published in media outlets across the state.

In 2017, Prather was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the most prestigious honor conferred by the Governor of North Carolina awarded to persons for exemplary service to the State of North Carolina and their communities that is above and beyond the call of duty and which has made a significant impact and strengthened North Carolina.

Prather has a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Virginia and a Juris Doctorate from the North Carolina Central School of Law. He and his wife Pam have three children all of whom graduated at the same time as proud members of the UNC Asheville Class of 2010.

For more information on UNC Asheville’s May 2021 Commencement, visit https://www.unca.edu/events-and-news/commencement/. Both ceremonies, including the speeches, will be livestreamed, and the in-person campus ceremony is only open to UNC Asheville graduates of the Class of 2021 and two guests each.