There are certain public figures that have an air about them that makes them seem invincible, practically even immortal. Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis was one of those public figures. He was beaten and bloodied while fighting for racial equality across the Jim Crow South, and in 2017 his character was attacked by the sitting President. But Representative Lewis stood tall as if nothing could truly take him down.
Of course, all heroes must be laid to rest one day, and on July 17th Lewis passed away, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. His passing caused people across the world to pause. In the midst of one of the biggest racial reckonings in history, a civil rights leader who people looked to for wisdom and for words that connected us, was gone.
Luckily, he left a legacy that touched us and taught us to fight. Fight for our freedoms, fight against injustice, and fight for our voices to be heard. His death, while devastating, served as a reminder for everyone to get into some good trouble, some necessary trouble. And exactly a month later, we should remind ourselves that we need that good trouble.
A son of sharecroppers, he grew up in Alabama and originally planned to use his voice to preach. To practice, he would gather his siblings and his chickens and share the word, but things changed after Emmett Till was killed. In his posthumous piece for the New York Times, Lewis wrote, “I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.”
The words and work of Dr. Martin Luther King are what led Lewis to find his own way into the movement. He understood that standing by in the face of injustice made one complicit, and he worked towards changing the broken foundation that America was built on. These ideals shaped him to become head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, and a member of Congress.
— Maya Wiley (@mayawiley) August 9, 2020
As most historical moments in history do, Lewis’ rise as a civil rights leader began with writing. More specifically, a letter he wrote to Dr. King. After the letter was sent, an 18-year-old Lewis found himself on a bus to Montgomery where he got to meet a young minister, who quickly deemed him the ‘boy from Troy’. His fight against injustice was not a short or easy one.
In 1960 Lewis performed sit-ins with the Nashville Student Movement where he was gassed, sprayed with fire hoses, and belittled by Nashville’s white community. In what has now been named, “Bloody Sunday,” Lewis led a nonviolent march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with other activists. He found their path blocked by Alabama State troopers and police who ordered them to turn around, but instead of backing down the crowd moved forward. They were then shot at, tear-gassed and beaten with clubs. This moment was televised and eventually spurred the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
It has been 55 years since “Bloody Sunday” and yet the images of police and state troopers beating protesters are not ones we just see in documentaries, they’re images we have been seeing on our television screens for months, as the topic of police brutality continues to be discussed online and off.
The injustice that Lewis fought for still has its hold on this country, and it has taken until now for people to truly start listening. After the murder of George Floyd, a switch flipped. The organization Black Lives Matter found their work being supported in ways it hasn’t been before, as protests and marches were organized all over the country, and the fight is still going.
In Portland, the protests have escalated after President Trump sent in federal agents. People were tear-gassed, shot by rubber bullets, and detained. Actions that are hauntingly familiar. In moments such as these, people look to the leaders that came before them for examples of strength.
In these moments it’s important to remember the example Lewis set for the country. You have to fight for what you believe in, but you do so non-violently. Use actions and words instead of stooping to the oppressors’ level. Get involved in the movement, but only get involved in good trouble, necessary trouble.
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