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JOHN ROBERT LEWIS: CROSSING THE BRIDGE OF GOOD TROUBLE

As the world reflects on the remarkable life of U S Congressman John Robert Lewis (February 21, 1940-July 17, 2020), we see violent images of a shameful past where the Jim Crow legacy in the United States worked to keep persons of color, particularly those of African descent in a subservient position. Lewis in a 1973 interview conducted by Jack Bass and Walter DeVries recalls a terrifying moment on March 7, 1965, when nearly 600 people, led by Lewis and Hosea Williams attempted to march 64 miles from Selma to Montgomery. Their intention was to get to the state capital to protest the anti-voting rights practices that existed throughout the South and other parts of the country. The march came to a brutal halt after the group crossed over the Edmund Pettus Bridge (see photo below) and were on the outskirts of Selma.  The marchers, mostly teenagers and women, were met by Sheriff Clark accompanied with his posse on horseback. These troopers were beating unarmed marchers with ropes and bullwhips. Lewis recalls that when troopers begin to gas the protesters, he knew that they were in grave danger. Looking back on the violent nature of that moment, Lewis states that we all were lucky no one died or sustained serious injuries. Television coverage of this brutal event weighed heavily on the American conscience.  This event referred to as “Bloody Sunday” helped to usher in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Stories such as the one above of Lewis getting into” good trouble” to bring about change for the greater good can come from pain and suffering, but have rewarding consequences.  “Good trouble” refers to nonviolent protests against unjust practices/laws. Methods of protest include conducting sit-ins at public segregated facilities, participating in the freedom rides to protest segregation of buses and bus terminals in the South, getting arrested over 40 times for “disturbing the peace,”  marching for justice, and delivering impassioned speeches to shake up the status quo for all.  This civil rights icon received many scars and bruises resulting from his “good trouble” activism. Nevertheless, he witnessed a type of healing that involved forgiveness by those who suffered many brutal acts from European Americans terrorizing persons of color and trying to prevent their progress.  Over the years, Lewis openly shared examples of reconciliation he experienced from some European Americans who attempted to cause him  and others harm for working to dismantle the segregated way of life. For example, when he visited places in Mississippi, Alabama, and Nashville, Tennessee (where he spent six years as a student), people viewed him as a hero. There was, a middle-aged white man who approached him at the Birmingham airport and asked for forgiveness. He stated, “Mr. Lewis on behalf of all the white people of Alabama, I want to apologize to you for what we did.”  Lewis accepted the apology and said that he would never forget moments like that (Manojlovic). He recalls an incident in 2012 at a church in Montgomery, where a young police officer spoke to the congregation and then turned to the Congressman and apologized for the Montgomery Police Department’s mistreatment of him more than fifty years ago when Lewis was there as a freedom rider. They did not protect him and other freedom riders from an angry mob. This police officer was not even born when the incident took place.  He informed Congressman Lewis of the changes in the Montgomery police department.  He stated that before anyone can become a member of the department today, he or she must study the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and learn what happened in Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham.  He again apologized for what happened and asked for forgiveness.  Then he gave his police badge to me.  Lewis said that many in the church, including myself, started crying when he presented his badge to me (Manojlovic).
 
Lewis’ humble roots began in Troy, Alabama, where he and his nine siblings were children of sharecroppers, Eddie Lewis and Lillian Miles Lewis. Through hard work and persistence, he was the first to graduate from high school in 1957. He graduated from two HBCUs, both, located in Nashville. He attended American Baptist Theological Seminary and graduated at age 20 in 1961. During his time at the seminary, Lewis met pacifist Rev. Jim Lawson (Sept.22, 1928--), an Ohio native who conducted nonviolence workshops in the basement of a church in Nashville. Rev. Lawson had served almost three years in prison as a conscientious objector to the Korean War.  Rev. Lawson previously had travelled to India doing missionary work for the Methodist church. This is where he learns about Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence.  Rev. Lawson conducted many nonviolent workshops for SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) and other Civil Rights groups. He is still associated with the Martin Luther King Institute.

Lewis started his work at Fisk University majoring in Religion and Philosophy in 1961, but later left to become chair of SNCC, 1963-65. After two years, He returned to Fisk to complete the work for his A. B. Degree. He graduated in 1967. Lewis’ first elected governmental office was in 1981 where he was a member of the Atlanta City Council until 1986. Once elected to represent Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, he served in this capacity for three decades until his death.

His relentless work in combating social injustice has landed him numerous (50) honorary doctorates from the most prestigious universities such as Harvard, Duke, Brown, U of Pennsylvania, Morehouse, Howard, and Fisk (his alma mater). His countless awards attest to his enduring legacy. According to Roll Call Magazine, he is the only recipient of the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for Lifetime Achievement (granted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation).  Some others include The Medal of Freedom presented by former President Barack Obama (2010), The Martin Luther King Jr. Award, The Lincoln Medal from the Historic Ford’s Theatre, the Golden Plate Award given by the Academy of Excellence, The Capital Award of the National Council of LaRaza, The Preservation Hero Award given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, etc.
Lewis co-authored his graphic novel memoir trilogy entitled March with Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell. In addition to being a New York Times Bestseller, in 2014 and 2016 it received numerous awards. According to Roll Call Magazine, many schools use the March series to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement to young activist of future generations. It has been a First-Year common reading text at universities such as Michigan State, Georgia State and many other higher institutions of learning.. His other award winning books include AcrossThat Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, Written with Brenda Jones, 2012 and Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, co-authored with Michael D’Orso, 1998.
 
Congressman Lewis worked fearlessly to combat human rights abuses in the US and all over the world. His Congressional website is a mirror into his soul. He talks about his “good trouble” acts that landed him in jail, twice at the South African Embassy when he was protesting against Apartheid and twice in Darfur for speaking out against genocide.  In 2017, he is outraged that a proposed ban on transgender military people is acceptable to some.  “I have fought too long and hard to end discrimination based on race and color to allow discrimination based on gender identity to be considered acceptable against those  serving our country and putting their bodies and livelihood on the lines for its defense.” He refers to the proposed ban as a “mean and misguided policy”.  He was an avid supporter of HR 7120 The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which passed the House on June 25, 2020 with a vote of 236/181. What’s interesting is that a part of the bill contains his Inclusion Act which among other things, allows federal grant funds to recruit and train officers from the underserved neighborhoods they are expected to protect and serve. Aaron Morrison talks about the great respect the younger activist have for Congressman Lewis for his lifetime commitment to causing “good trouble” to help create a more just society. One of Lewis’ last public appearances was in June 2020 where he walked through the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza and took a picture on top of the yellow mural amid the protests over the death of George Floyd. Activists and many others will honor his rich legacy and remember his noble effort. “We must stay vigilant in condemning violence and human rights abuses and responding to humanitarian disasters in every corner of the world.” John Lewis’ enduring spirit and legacy will help guide us over many troubled bridges.
 


Congressman John Lewis
Smithsonianmag.com
 


 
John Lewis leads a march across the Edmund Pettus bridge
Edmund Pettus Bridge

 


Sources:
Bass, Jack and Walter Devries, Interviewers, “Interview with John Lewis,”
https://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/html_use/A-0073.html , Nov. 20, 1973. Accessed July 20, 2020
 
Blakemore, Erin. “John Lewis’ Arrest Records Are finally Uncovered,”
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/john-lewis-arrest-records-are-finally-uncovered-180961255/, Dec. 1, 2016. Accessed July 19, 2020.
 
Lewis, John, “Peace the Path to Prosperity,” https://johnlewis.house.gov/issues/peace-and-nonviolence
Accessed, July 19, 2020.
 
Manojlovic, Borislava, “John Lewis: Love and Forgiveness in Governance,”  http://blogs.shu.edu/diplomacyresearch/2014/01/20/john-lewis/ , December 2013. Accessed July 21, 2020.
 
Morrison, Aaron, “How the Black Lives Matter Generation Remembers John Lewis,” https://apnews.com/bf4045bef92922c83b431ed5b151f401, July 10, 2020. Accessed July 21, 2020
 
Roll Call Magazine, “John Lewis,” https://johnlewis.house.gov/john-lewis/biography
Accessed, July 20, 2020
 
Stanford/The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, “The Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr.” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/reverend-james-m-lawson-jr. Accessed July 20, 2020
 
 
 
 
Carol S. Taylor Johnson, PhD.

National Center for Human Relations, Director
Department of English and Africana Studies
johnsoct@wvstateu.edu
 
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