I have not said much about the death of John Lewis even though I have wanted to do so. I’ve been a bit too weepy thinking about his life story to be able to put my thoughts on paper in a coherent manner. Losing one of the last of the big Civil Rights leaders has brought back so many memories of a lifetime ago. I had thought or perhaps wanted to believe that the racial animus of my childhood was long gone. I actually believed at times that Congressman Lewis may have been exaggerating the extent of modern day problems with race. All of that changed in the last few years as I observed an underbelly of our nation that seemed to be festering and growing like a toxic virus. I have been stunned by racism that I have seen and heard that should have died long ago. I knew that we have yet to complete the journey to justice and equality for all that he fought for so courageously for all of his life.
John Lewis was a young man when he decided to join in the struggle for freedom alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jim Lawson, and others. He was so passionate about the cause that not even multiple arrests and life threatening injuries were able to dampen his spirit. He marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday only to be viciously attacked. His skull was crushed but not his fervor. He often admonished all of us to engage in such “good trouble.”
When John Lewis was asked to speak at the famous march on Washington D.C. he prepared a speech that was so incendiary that his elders asked him to tone it down. He learned from them and always lived their creed of nonviolence and persuasion. He became known as a genuinely kind person. People described him as compassionate and sweet but he remained a fighter for the good of all people for the totality of his life.
I once visited Selma with a group of minority students. We stood in front of the church where John Lewis and others had gathered for their ill fated march to Montgomery, Alabama which was short circuited as they went over the rise of the Edmund Pettus bridge. They were greeted by law officers and snarling dogs who set on them with clubs, beating them to the ground. It was one of the ugliest moments in the history of our country and it changed the hearts and minds of people around the world.
As I walked across the bridge with my students so many years later I felt the spirit of those people who fought so valiantly for their right to vote. We were a motley group with our crew of black and brown students being led by mostly white teachers. We attracted a bit of attention and eventually we were even followed by a clearly marked sheriff’s car. When we got to the crest of the bridge I became breathless as I stared down its length and imagined how those brave souls, including John Lewis, must have felt on that fateful day.
Eventually our journey took us to Montgomery, Alabama where we once again reenacted history by walking toward the State Capitol building. I literally felt the living presence of the souls who had endured such “good trouble” to make the rest of us aware of the problems that they faced. I felt honored and humbled to walk in their shadows.
Now one of the greats among us is gone but I believe we can learn from him. I would tell the Black Lives Matter movement that their message is important but they need to be more tactical in the things they do and say. The protests of the era when John Lewis was young always had a specific message and purpose. They were respectful and nonviolent. They were not damaging to communities. They won the respect of the world with their passive resistance.
Today’s protests too often lose their focus. Looting never helps the cause no matter how many attempts there are to rationalize it. Destroying property only plays into the hands of the very people who have racist views. Being distracted by monuments and statues draws attention away from the real issues and results in only cosmetic changes. John Lewis understood all of these things and if the new era of protestors have any thought of honoring him they will study and follow his way of doing things. They will focus on voting rights and other systemic changes, not trivial symbolism.
It’s easy for a city to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee but if they do not also discuss changes that provide justice for Black Americans little will actually change. The Black Lives Matter movement is gaining support all over the world but it must be careful not to overdo. People become easily bored with a continual cadence that is not backed up with a seeable, doable plan. Now is an opportunity to honor a great man, John Lewis, by asking what he would do and then agreeing to make some “good trouble” with a clear goal that everyone can understand.