I witnessed hateful behavior at my daughter’s high school graduation last week. We were at her drive-in graduation, watching the live ceremony happening a few yards away on a jumbo screen while listening on our radios. A parent rolled down his window and loudly heckled commencement speakers when they alluded to anything about racial inequalities in our world.
This harassing behavior was hurtful, especially at a time when we’re working hard to create a more just country. Thankfully, the powers that be reacted strongly to this behavior, immediately communicating it would not be tolerated, and applied direct public consequences.
This happened the same day that one of our greatest civil rights activists died at age 80. Few individuals have had the impact on our nation that Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis did. He preached nonviolence while enduring beatings and jailings during historic confrontations of the 1960s and then spent more than three decades in Congress defending the crucial gains he helped achieve for people of color.
He had a quiet character and always stood for nonviolent civil disobedience. As administrations dismantled the very laws that Lewis literally risked his life for, people would get upset but he would say, “You can’t get bitter. It will work out; it just might take longer than we’d like.”
After his death last week, six days of memorials and processions honored him, from Troy, Alabama, Lewis’s hometown . . . to Atlanta, Georgia, where he was laid to rest. Lewis became the first Black lawmaker to lie in the US Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. as nearly all lawmakers (Democratic and Republican) and the general public came to pay their respects.
Lewis was a central force in the historic 1960s civil rights movement seeking equality for Black Americans and other oppressed people. He played crucial roles as a critic who not only stood—often literally—against government power, but also served within the system as a 33-year member of Congress. He led with love and nonviolence and worked to create unity and not animosity.
Three former presidents as well as many dignitaries came together to honor Congressman Lewis at his funeral in Atlanta, Georgia. The memorial took place in Ebenezer Baptist Church, in the pulpit of its greatest pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This 134-year-old church has become an icon of the civil rights movement and a place people turn to in moments of crisis. It was especially moving when attendees sang “We Shall Overcome,” a protest anthem Lewis also sang during his nonviolent confrontations with police forces in the South who beat and injured him many times.
Lewis led by example
Lewis was known for his perseverance and his courage. At age 20, he participated in sit-ins in Nashville that led to the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, Freedom Summer, and Selma. He was beaten regularly for entering white spaces, including being hit in the head with a wooden crate and left unconscious at a bus station, in Montgomery, Alabama. But he kept standing back up.
Lewis was a key organizer of the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery. State and local police attacked 600 civil rights marchers, and a state trooper viciously beat Lewis and fractured his skull on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The event became known as Bloody Sunday. “I thought I was going to die on that bridge,” he says in “Good Trouble,” a new CNN Films documentary.
- “Yes, I was beaten, left bloody and unconscious. But I never became bitter or hostile, never gave up. I believe that somehow and some way if it becomes necessary to use our bodies to help redeem the soul of a nation, then we must do it,” Lewis said.
- The televised images of the bravery of Lewis and other protesters in the face of state violence inspired the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act just two months later.
- Fittingly, his body was carried by horse and carriage across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to honor his life’s work.
Ironically, John Lewis’s memorial came just hours after Trump—the only living president not to participate in any Lewis tribute—suggested the November elections should be delayed because he didn’t trust the efficacy of mail-in voting. How did the right to vote become so fragile?
Calls to action: Carry on Lewis’ legacy
Former president Barack Obama gave a powerful eulogy for his longtime mentor and hero, praising the courage it took for Lewis to challenge the entire infrastructure of society starting at age 20. “He, as much as anyone in our history, brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals,” Mr. Obama said. President Obama commended Lewis’ lifetime of activism and urged Americans to carry on his legacy by demanding new voting rights legislation.
Mr. Obama delivered a call to action: for us to voice support for passing reforms, implementing automatic voter registration and establishing a national holiday on Election Day to make it easier for working people to get to the polls. He reminded us that Lewis’s legacy rests with ordinary Americans.
He also reminded us that this country is a work in progress and each generation takes on the unfinished work from the previous generation, saying Lewis knew that maintaining “democracy isn’t automatic; it has to be nurtured, it has to be tended to.”
And that it not only takes faith but active participation and hard work to improve the country and keep a healthy democracy on course.
It’s easy to be entirely cynical and apathetic about politics and to conclude that all politicians are incompetent and real change is impossible. But if we have learned anything from history, it is that we, collectively, have the capacity and obligation to push the country’s compass towards a better Union and, through politics, to translate our values into action.
While Lewis recounted his own work and struggles in the early days of the civil rights movement, he urged us to continue the fight to redeem the soul of America by getting in what he called “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Today, we need his kind of courage and stamina to stand up for the things we believe in. And, as Obama said, “We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while, and show us the way.”
Highlight of the Week: His last words of wisdom and motivation for us
Lewis’ essay, “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” was published by The New York Times as something he’d written to run the day of his funeral. He urges us to continue actively participating in the democratic process and reminds us it is not enough to rage at oppressors from the comfort of our homes or bemoan election results in which we do not participate.
This video has Morgan Freeman’s voice reading the final words of his friend and civil rights icon Lewis with images from the struggle for civil rights from the 1960s. It includes historic photos of Lewis alongside his mentor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Challenge of the Week: Honor him by taking action
Now is our time to challenge the infrastructure of oppression and not avoid our responsibilities to make this nation better. Instead, we need to embrace our responsibilities with perseverance.
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war,” Lewis wrote. “So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
Let’s pay tribute to Lewis and his legacy by actively and outwardly working to improve and uphold our democracy.
This is a perilous time in our history and we all need to walk with the wind, in love and for peace, as Lewis did. Use your voice to denounce lies, to defend the weak and powerless, and to refuse to accept the impulsive and unwarranted deployment of federal power. Elevate science over opinion, and take risks and responsibility for our democracy. Use your personal power and any privilege you have to uphold democratic values that create justice for all.
Now is the perfect time to get more politically active. Here’s a list of 25 ways to get you started.
And VOTE as if your life depended upon it! It does.
In the words of Lewis, “Though I am gone, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.”
—Kendall Webb, Executive Director