Since his death last week, I have been reading a lot about American civil-rights leader and Congressman, John Lewis. I’ve been intrigued by him for a while, but it has amped up since he passed away.
He is a hero in his own country but is not widely known here in Australia. His death didn’t make the TV news and there was a single article in my newspaper of choice, so here’s a little background:
- Lewis grew up in Alabama in the Jim Crow south and was the son of sharecroppers.
- He graduated from theological college and got involved in the Nashville Student Movement, which sought desegregation through non-violent means.
- As an original Freedom Rider in 1961, Lewis joined twelve other civil-rights activists to ride interstate buses through the Southern states where authorities were ignoring the Supreme Court rulings that had banned segregation. By sitting in seats reserved for white travellers, Lewis and the other Freedom Riders risked their lives. The buses were attacked and fire-bombed and the Freedom Riders were variously beaten, arrested, jailed and threatened with lynching. You can read more about the Freedom Rides here: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/freedom-rides.
- At the March on Washington, the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Lewis also addressed the huge crowd as a keynote speaker. At 23, he was the youngest speaker; the text of his speech is here: https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/lewis-speech-at-the-march-on-washington-speech-text/.
- After the passing of the Civil Rights Act, blacks were still being obstructed in their efforts to register for voting. Lewis lent his support to the campaign and was involved in the Selma to Montgomery marches. He was there on “Bloody Sunday” when 600 marchers attempted to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and were attacked by Alabama State Troopers. Lewis’ skull was fractured in the attack. There’s more about the Bloody Sunday march here: https://www.history.com/news/selma-bloody-sunday-attack-civil-rights-movement.
- In 1986, Lewis was elected to Congress and served as U.S. Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District up until his death last week.
- When Barack Obama was elected President, Lewis was on the inauguration stand with him as he was sworn in. Obama told Lewis that his election was only possible because of the sacrifices Lewis had made.
- Lewis did not attend Donald Trump’s 2016 inauguration because he did not recognise the legitimacy of the presidency following reports of Russian meddling in the election. In response, Trump tweeted “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”.
I could take this piece in a few different directions … maybe segue to an example from my work … but I really just want to dwell on the legacy. Setting aside Trump’s erroneous claim that Lewis was not a man of action, take a look at this quote from Joe Biden:
How could someone in flesh and blood be so courageous, so full of hope and love in the face of so much hate, violence, and vengeance? Perhaps it was the Spirit that found John as a young boy in the Deep South dreaming of preaching the social gospel; the work ethic his sharecropper parents instilled in him and that stayed with him; the convictions of nonviolent civil disobedience he mastered from Dr. King and countless fearless leaders in the movement; or the abiding connection with the constituents of Georgia’s 5th District he loyally served for decades. Or perhaps it was that he was truly a one-of-a-kind, a moral compass who always knew where to point us and which direction to march.
I’m not sure why Lewis has piqued my interest to the extent it has but I find his life story simply astounding. There are multiple movies and documentaries already made, and no doubt more yet to come, where Lewis is a leading character. This one person has seen so much history and made such a huge difference.
One thing that particularly resonates for me is that Lewis remained committed to non-violent resolution, even though he was arrested more than 40 times and suffered numerous injuries from violent attacks. He didn’t respond to violence with violence but he also didn’t shy away from strife, regularly using the phrase “get in good trouble, necessary trouble” – you can see him in action in this short clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xdbz6q1AP44.
What an extraordinary man. To walk his life with such grace and honour in the quest for justice and equality, while facing persecution and violence.
I am left with a lot of questions. Beyond Malala and Greta, who are today’s activist heroes? What important work should each of us be doing? What injustices in our society do we need to speak up about? What struggle of a lifetime do we need to commit to?
With drought, bushfires and COVID, I know that 2020 is not the easiest of years to focus on what your life’s work might be, but do take a moment to reflect on the life of this remarkable man … and have a good think about what good and necessary trouble you should be getting yourself into.
John Lewis, thank you for your example.