Remembering John Lewis: The Power of ‘Good Trouble’

U.S. Rep. John Lewis speaks at the opening ceremony for the new “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words” exhibition, December 4, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller

Few people that you meet truly rouse the best in you. They are walking heroes, living historymakers. Their words and deeds have a thunderous impact on your soul. Congressman John Robert Lewis was such a person for me.  I join the world in mourning the passing of this civil rights legend.

The son of a sharecropper growing up in rural Alabama, he said as a little boy he was in constant fear because of signs that said “no colored boys, no colored girls.” His parents and grandparents used to tell him “don’t get in trouble.” Nevertheless, as a young man he was inspired to activism by the Montgomery Bus Boycott that started when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

This past December, the Library of Congress opened an extensive exhibition, “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words,” where the congressman spoke. “Rosa Parks inspired us to get in trouble. And I’ve been getting in trouble ever since,” said Lewis. “She inspired us to find a way, to get in the way, to get in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.” Over the years, he was able to meet and work with Rosa Parks who taught him about the philosophy and discipline of non-violence. “She kept on saying to each one of us, you too can do something,” he said. “And for people if you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, do something. We cannot afford to be quiet.” (Watch the full video below.)

John Lewis, leader of SNCC, rises to speak at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963. Photo by Bob Adelman

During the exhibition opening, John Lewis told how he was inspired by Rosa Parks to write to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was given a round trip bus ticket to Montgomery to meet with Dr. King and upon meeting him was nicknamed, “The Boy from Troy.”

He risked his life countless times by organizing voter registration drives, sit-ins at lunch counters and was beaten and arrested for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South. While still a young man, John Lewis was already a nationally recognized leader and was named one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. He was also the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and his papers and interviews from this time are held at the Library of Congress. At the age of 23, he was a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in 1963.

In March 7, 1965, John Lewis led more than 600 peaceful protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state of Alabama. They were greeted by brutal attacks by Alabama State Troopers that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” This photo from the Library of Library collection is still one of the most powerful images from that day.

Despite numerous arrests and physical injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. He was elected to the Atlanta City Council and then the representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. He stuck to Rosa Parks’ advice to never be quiet and to continue getting into “good trouble.”

SNCC leader John Lewis cringes as state trooper swings his club at Lewis’ head during attempted march on the state capitol at Montgomery, March 7, 1965. UPI Telephoto

The congressman was a frequent guest at the Library of Congress. His generous spirit touched everyone he met in the halls of the Library – whether it was reading his graphic novel “March” or speaking at public events – his gentle temperament kept you at ease. His graphic novel allowed him to continue to connect with a new generation of young readers in the hope of inspiring them the way Rosa Parks had inspired him.

In November, John Lewis celebrated the AIDS Memorial Quilt collection arriving at the Library of Congress. His message of peaceful resolve, perseverance and care still rings loud. “In the height of the civil rights movement, we spoke of love,” Lewis said. “On one occasion Dr. King said to some of us, just love everybody. Love them who fail to love you, just love. Just love a little hell out of everybody.”

The world mourns. But we also celebrate a great warrior and fighter of injustice. Let us remember his story and listen to the words he passionately shared for more than a half a century. Congressman John Robert Lewis embodies the best in all of us. Let his legacy and spirit live on. I offer my prayers and condolences to his family and to the grateful people of his district in Georgia.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis speaks during a ceremony announcing the Library of Congress as the new home of the AIDS Memorial Quilt Archive, Nov. 20, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller

7 Comments

  1. Denis Wolf-Keith
    July 19, 2020 at 7:00 pm

    John Lewis you were one amazing human being and you have sent out energy that has reverberated around the world. WE, The PEOPLE have been empowered by you and are ready to take up your yoke and push on in the challenge of Freedom For ALL❗ Thank You for all you gave ❣️

  2. Mary Prevost
    July 20, 2020 at 1:57 pm

    John Lewis: There are few men who have do so much and asked for so little in response. You’re dedication, love, and honesty will be your legend. History books will include your story, one that is truly amazing and inspirational. May you be in peace. Thank you MR. Lewis.

  3. Roger Townley
    July 20, 2020 at 2:23 pm

    Thank you for always standing up for your constituents even when it wasn’t popular or when you were pressured to follow another path.
    Your bravery and loyalty will always be your legacy.

  4. Sherman Howell
    July 21, 2020 at 3:34 pm

    Congressman John Lewis: A Troublemaker Who Personified Peace and Justice

    Written by
    Sherman Howell, Freelance Writer

    July 19, 2020

    Photo by Jeff Hutchens-Getty

    You must find a way to get in the way and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. … You have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate, when you leave here, to go out and seek justice for all. You can do it. You must do it.
    – On recounting advice John Lewis received from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told by John at Bates College’s 150th Commencement

    My life and John Lewis’s life has been defined by our civil rights activities throughout the South. John was the son of sharecroppers who came to Eastern Tennessee around 1960 by way of Troy Alabama, his birthplace. I, of course, was born as the son of a Tennessee cotton farmer in the town of Eads in Western Tennessee. Eads was located outside of Memphis and not far from the banks of the Mississippi. In Jon Meacham’s recent book, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and The Power of Hope, Jon said Lewis’s life “was linked to the painful quest for justice in America.” And that link to John’s life is exactly how I came to know and appreciate the work of John Lewis. For John and I were focused on creating a reality based in justice and equality for all.

    John and I met when I was 17 years old and had just enrolled in the only Historically Black College in Memphis – Owen College (now renamed LeMoyne-Owen College). Similarly, John had become enrolled at American Baptist College in Nashville, in Eastern Tennessee. Students at LeMoyne-Owen College in 1960 had started participation in the southern lunch-counter and anti-segregation interstate movements to protest the “separate but equal” accommodations laws. At that time, these laws were mandated by the U. S. Supreme Court from the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case.

    The majority of most civil rights meetings, especially with the Big Six as they are called – Martin Luther King, Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference; James Farmer, Congress on Racial Equality; John Lewis, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; A. Phillip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Reporters; Roy Wilkins, NAACP; and Whitney Young, National Urban League, took place at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, where most dine at the renowned Four-Way Grill. This provided me with ample opportunities to experience and engage with civil rights giants on a regular basis. John, similar to many of us, frequently moved throughout the south focusing on voter registration and political education.

    John and I worked at ACTION, a federal domestic volunteer agency formed during President Nixon’s administration. And it was during these civil rights activities that John that assured me that voter registration and education would be kept alive.

    In the February 2009 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine, Marian Smith Holmes wrote about a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement:
    On Sunday, May 14, 1961—Mother’s Day—scores of angry white people blocked a Greyhound bus carrying black and white passengers through rural Alabama. The attackers pelted the vehicle with rocks and bricks, slashed tires, smashed windows with pipes and axes and lobbed a firebomb through a broken window. As smoke and flames filled the bus, the mob barricaded the door. “Burn them alive,” somebody cried out. “Fry the goddamn ni**ers.” An exploding fuel tank and warning shots from arriving state troopers forced the rabble back and allowed the riders to escape the inferno. Even then some were pummeled with baseball bats as they fled.
    The passengers on this bus were Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who fought for the implementation of desegregation on public buses in the south. John was a Freedom Rider and actively participated in these protests.

    Although Tennessee was not one of the states chosen to participate in this fight, the Freedom Rides, I decided to spruce up my car and drive alone from Memphis to New Orleans, to do what I described at the time as: “testing justice in America.” I drove straight through the heart of Mississippi and, unknowingly traveled, I later discovered through Time Magazine, on one of the most dangerous highways in America.

    I joined John and other civil rights activists and others in Marches fighting injustice. Our fight, in other words, continued as we both participated in the Marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, including Bloody Sunday – a brutal and violent day for John. Important to note that we were fighting and marching for justice and equality in voting rights for Black Americans, especially for my people in Somerville, Tennessee, where hundreds of “Tent City” families there had been driven from their homes by the Ku Klux Klan because of trying to register to vote.

    John was often referred to as a “troublemaker”, a label that I am often confronted with here in Howard County, Maryland. Here again, I learned from John that fighting for justice require courage, a culture of ignoring the torpedoes, and a resoluteness of a bear continuing full speed ahead. John has been referred to as a “saint that walked among us.” And I am proud and honored to have had the opportunity to have joined this Saint, this giant, a revolutionary, in the fight for peace and justice.

  5. Lynn Wheeler
    July 22, 2020 at 4:58 pm

    John Lewis was a great man indeed. His bravery and selflessness in the face of grave danger are a model for us all. He leaves a tremendous legacy of hope. He was very proud of the work of the Library of Congress. Thank you Dr. Hayden and staff for your work to share the important and painful history of our country.

  6. Wyatt Kenneth Coleman
    July 23, 2020 at 5:42 am

    We offer our sympathy to the family and friends. I met you many years ago and it changed my life and that of my family. We were honored to know you and also to photograph you over the years.There are some amazing images from the times together.Thank you for all you gave to my family and the world. Thank you !!!

  7. Film14
    July 27, 2020 at 5:18 pm

    Thank you. Good read.

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