Good Trouble: Rep. John Lewis’ Life & Enduring Legacy
August 13th, 2020
On July 17th, 2020, Rep. John Lewis took his final, labored breath at his home in Atlanta after undergoing nearly a year of treatment for stage four pancreatic cancer. As a celebrated freedom rider, congress member, and leader, John Lewis leaves behind a message of resilience and determination that remains relevant in modern-day and that will remain pertinent for years to come.
On February 21st, 1940, just outside of Troy, Alabama, John Lewis was born to two sharecropper parents and seven siblings (two more siblings, Henry and Rosa, would soon follow) in a small, rural town. Despite growing up enclosed within a forcefield built by his family and nearly thirty nieces and nephews, he wrote that “their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle.” During his childhood and up until he was fifteen, Lewis felt helpless in his attempts to avoid the segregation that plagued his world, writing that he was “searching for a way out, or some might say a way in.” That was until he heard the booming words of Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio from his speech during the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott. Lewis remembered hearing King preach about the power of nonviolence and that it’s “not enough to say it will get better by and by...each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up, and speak out.” Invigorated by these words, young Lewis sought out ways he could get involved in the civil rights movement.
The next year, Lewis left Alabama to attend the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. Once there, he learned about non-violent protests and organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. He was arrested, but, already, nothing could deter him from his path towards reform. He went on to participate in the Freedom Rides of 1961, protests that often involved brutal beatings, of which Lewis was subjected to more than once.
In 1963, at just 23 years old, he was elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was recognized as one of the “Big Six” civil rights activists (along with Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young) and helped plan the March on Washington. He was the youngest speaker at the event and gave a stirring address, most notably demanding that we recognize “the fact that if any radical, social, political, and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.”
After that demonstration, the Civil Rights Act became the law in 1964. However, African-Americans were still barred from voting. To highlight this injustice, On March 7th, 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams led a march with over 600 protestors from Selma to Montgomery, better known as “Bloody Sunday.” Just after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the protestors were bombarded with state troopers wielding clubs. Lewis was so severely beaten that he suffered a fractured skull. The images of the gory attack were widely circulated and helped spur the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lewis left the SNCC a year later and worked even harder to empower minorities, motivated by the crushing deaths of King and Robert Kennedy. In 1970, he became the director of the Voter Education Project, which helped to register millions of minority voters. Lewis then ran for office in 1981, securing a seat on the Atlanta City Council. Five years later, he was elected to the House of Representatives. Throughout his tenure, he called for healthcare reform, instituted measures to fight poverty, instated improvements in education, and oversaw multiple renewals of the Voting Rights Act. Lewis was not only an advocate for civil rights but was also a passionate advocate against gun violence. In the wake of the mass shooting that took place in Florida, 2016, he organized a sit-in of approximately forty House Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives on June 22nd. His goal was to urge Congress to take definitive legislative action against gun violence.
In December 2019, Lewis delivered the unfortunate news that he had been diagnosed with incurable cancer and passed away just seven months later.
In The New York Times Op-Ed John Lewis wrote the day before he died, he reiterated his motto that he had disseminated throughout his lifetime, “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.” He urged readers to “study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time.” And finally, “walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
John Lewis’s words and work deserve global recognition and instill a heightened sense of responsibility in the public. He has left behind a weight that rested on his shoulders for years, hoping that others would continue to carry and champion civil rights to form a more just and equitable society. We must all assume responsibility, simply because if not us, then who? We must assume responsibility because we can, just as Rep. John Lewis once did.