This past week I’ve been immersed in Congressman John Lewis’s iconic life. I reread his graphic memoir trilogy “March.” I watched a documentary about him called “Good Trouble.” But most of all, I sat with his words, his spirit. Lewis’s heroism was borne of incredible courage, spiritual fortitude and unerring optimism. He was a child of the civil rights movement, admiring of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. when he was a teenager.
At the age of 17, Lewis wrote to King asking for assistance in enrolling in an all-white college close to his home in Alabama. He never heard from the school, but King sent him a life-changing round-trip ticket to Montgomery. It was the beginning of Lewis’s life as an American dissident. By the time Lewis was 23, he was a major leader in the movement, delivering a fiery speech during the 1963 March on Washington.
Early on, Lewis was steeped in the teachings of his church and King’s radio sermons. In a number of interviews, as well as the documentary, Lewis noted that he wanted to be a preacher. He often told an anecdote about preaching to the chickens on his parents’ farm. In “March,” he sweetly noted that some of the chickens listened to him, and others ignored him. But none of them ever said, “Amen.” Nevertheless, he loved his chickens and cried when his parents wanted to kill one of them for supper. “My first nonviolent protests,” he once said, “were protesting against my parents for getting rid of some of those chickens.”
John Robert Lewis was born in 1940 in Alabama and grew up outside of Troy, a small town 50 miles from Montgomery. His father was a sharecropper who assiduously saved the large sum of $300 to buy 110 acres of his own land. Lewis was one of 10 children, and although he was poor growing up, he fondly remembered his childhood. Yet over the years he saw segregation and racial discrimination, and when he asked his parents about it, they said, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”
In the coming years, Lewis would flip his parents’ warning and advocate for “getting into good trouble, necessary trouble.” Lewis left Alabama for college in Nashville to study theology and, eventually, nonviolent resistance. Under the tutelage of mentors, including his professor Jim Lawson, Lewis and his peers studied satyagraha, Gandhi’s term for political nonviolent resistance, Thoreau’s civil disobedience and religious traditions that supported nonviolence.
In Lawson’s classes, students and activists role-played what Lewis called “social dramas.” Black and white young people staged mock sit-ins at lunch counters, anticipating every kind of harassment and humiliation. Through it all, Lewis and his fellow activists were adamant about maintaining their humanity and the humanity of their attackers. The key, Lewis said, was maintaining eye contact: “We did go through the motions, the drama, of saying that if someone kicks you, spits on you, pulls you off the lunch counter stool, continue to make eye contact. Continue to give the impression, ‘Yes, you may beat me, but I’m human.’” The tactic was meant to be a spiritual confrontation.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis did more than hold the gaze of Alabama state troopers; he made history. On the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, Lewis helped to lead 600 people marching for voting rights in what was planned as a peaceful protest. However, after the group peacefully crossed the bridge, the troopers, along with white supremacists, attacked them with tear gas, bullwhips and clubs. In the brutal clash, Lewis’ skull was fractured, and he was beaten into unconsciousness. “I thought I was going to die,” he said later. Of that time, he also said, “In all the years since, I’ve not had any sense of bitterness or ill feeling toward any of the people. I just don’t have it. I guess it’s not part of my DNA to become bitter, to become hostile.”
Lewis was elected to Congress from Atlanta in 1986 and served 17 terms. He liked to say he held the distinction of having the most arrests of any member of Congress—45 in total. But, more notably, he held the unofficial title of the “Conscience of the Congress.” His remarks in the House impeachment of President Trump added to his moral activism. “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”
Lewis stood squarely on the right side of history all his life. He observed that he not only saw his politics as part of his role in the civil rights movement, but as an indelible part of his faith. “My life, whether in the civil rights movement or whether in American politics, is an extension of my faith,” he said. “It’s the sense that you believe that somehow and some way with love and a sense of ‘I got to do it.’ I talk about the spirit and I talk about the spirit of history.”
One of my favorite memories of Congressman Lewis was his 2015 appearance at San Diego Comic-Con International to promote “March.” He noted that he wrote “March” for succeeding generations to know the history of civil rights and human rights. At the convention, Lewis wore the identical beige trench coat, shirt and tie and carried a similar backpack to the one he had when he was beaten at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Holding on to a child in each of his hands, he led a large procession through the convention hall, showing that his half-century journey from 1965 Selma to 2015 San Diego was for the sake of the future.
There is so much to say and praise about Congressman John Lewis. But for now, I’ll simply end with his words:
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”