Election Connection: 15 Weeks: Civil Rights Icon, John R. Lewis (1940-2020)


“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.”

John Lewis, Twitter, 2018
John R. Lewis, House of Representatives. Public Domain. (c)2020

Three years ago I bought a book on Kindle called The Children by David Halberstam. It is about the early days of the civil rights movement. I never found the time to read it. There were always other books to read; library books to read and return before the due date. But nearly two weeks ago, with the nationwide protests in mind, I finally downloaded and began reading it. About the same time, I mentioned to my husband that I wanted to see Good Trouble, the documentary about John Lewis’ life. I began to read The Children and thought when I was through I would watch the film.

Then on Friday, just as I was going to bed, I checked Twitter one more time, and I immediately regretted it. John Lewis had died. I knew he was 80. I knew he was ill. And yet, I expected him to overcome the cancer and live forever.

I watched Good Trouble yesterday afternoon and while I knew many of the incidents it depicted, I still learned much.

I have long been an admirer of John Lewis, and in my school life, I didn’t learn about him at all until after I had graduated college and began to educate myself on things that I deemed important. Martin Luther King, Jr. was important and we learned all about him in school as we absolutely should have. And John Lewis was equally as important and yet, I hadn’t heard his name before.

Born in 1940 in Troy, Alabama, his parents were sharecroppers until they saved enough money to buy 110 acres of their own land; land that his family continues to own to this day. He tells how he preached to the chickens and while they appeared to listen to him, they never said “Amen”. From preaching to chickens he attended American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee and then went on to Fisk University, also in Nashville earning a Bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy.

In Nashville, while still at the Seminary, he met Rev. Jim Lawson who led workshops in nonviolence and civil disobedience. This is the part I’m up to in The Children where, in addition to John Lewis there is a who’s who of the civil rights movement including Rev. CT Vivian, who also died this past Friday.

John R. Lewis. Public Domain. (c)2020

John Lewis was one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and became its chairman in 1963. He was an original Freedom Rider and was beaten for his role in integrating buses, and on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on a voting rights march.

He was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington and was one of the six called on to organize the march and he was the last speaker still living until his death on Friday.

He worked for President Jimmy Carter and was on the city council of Atlanta, Georgia. He became the Representative of the 5th District in Atlanta in 1986 and served until his death, re-elected a total of sixteen times.

He was against the death penalty and was often called the conscience of the Congress.

He said that he felt “a calling, to serve.” And looking back at his sixty years plus of service, it is clear that that is exactly what he did.

Since 1988 until its signing in 2003, he introduced a bill to create an African American museum in Washington as part of the Smithsonian. It was finally passed and signed into law by President George W. Bush. It was officially opened in 2016 and is located close to the Washington Monument.

He was a known optimist, not in a pollyanna way of thinking but in hope that comes from faith. He said in recent times that this is not a time for despair; it is a time for action. And many who today are adopting battleground states, registering voters across the country and protesting and fighting against voter suppression are following that call to action. (See links below.)

The three things he taught his staff (and those of us who followed him) were:

  1. Get into trouble; good trouble.
  2. Speak up and speak out.
  3. Don’t get lost in a sea of despair.

[Shared by Ruth Berg, former receptionist of John Lewis, John Lewis: Good Trouble.]

He was arrested forty-five times. Five of those were while serving in Congress.

From jail to Medal of Freedom. Public Domain (c)2020
President Barack Obama and Representative John Lewis. Medal of Freedom Ceremony. Public Domain. (c)2020

On June 27, 2017, he and Senator Cory Booker sat-in on the steps of the Senate Building to talk about health care as a right on Booker’s Facebook Live, he said, “Sometimes, you know, by sitting in or sitting down you’re really standing up. I said to people all the time if you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to stand up, to do something, to say something, and find a way to get in the way, and make a little noise” Soon after this was said, they were joined little by little until the crowd reached over a hundred people sitting in with them. They sat for three and a half hours.

Yesterday, Lewis’ youngest brother, Henry Grant Lewis, said in reference to John’s life and legacy, “And remember my brother, to keep his legacy alive by helping anyone that you see that needs help and make the world more just and a better place to live.

Vote Save America

Fair Fight 2020

When We All Vote


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