John Lewis’ Good Trouble

“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society…In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”  – John Lewis’ final essay, published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the day of his funeral, per his wishes

John Lewis was the son of sharecroppers (meaning, they worked land from a landlord and a portion of their crop was the rent) in rural Alabama. He was 15 years old when Emmett Till was brutally murdered, and this triggered a life-long mission to end segregation and see unity in the United States. At the beginning of this mission, he helped to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with the mission of ensuring voter registration of Black voters in the South. 

This passion then led him to becoming a Freedom Rider, an integrated group of people with the goal of traveling via public buses from Washington DC to New Orleans to protest the continued segregation of southern transportation. Though the protestors were nonviolent, along the route he and the other Riders were attacked multiple times, including by Klansmen. 

John Lewis was a friend to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he assisted in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, famous as the place for Dr King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. 

Perhaps most people recall John Lewis with the nonviolent-turned violent “Bloody Sunday” event in Selma, Alabama. A large group of people had gathered to walk from Selma to Montgomery (51 miles) to protest the assassination of another activist, Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot by an Alabama state trooper during a nonviolent protest the week prior. 

As the group crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named after a Confederate general/KKK grand dragon), they were met with and attacked by Alabama state troopers and mounted officers, who had gathered under the direction of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace. They began attacking the crowd of over 600 protestors, beating them and spraying them with tear gas. John Lewis suffered a fractured skull. The attack was televised and became a pivotal moment for the Civil Rights movement, helping to push the passage of the Voting Rights Act. 

John Lewis recovered and went on to be the Congressional representative for Georgia’s 5th district from 1987 until his death in 2020. He served on several committees: Budget, Interior and Insular Affairs, Public Works and Transportation, Select Aging, Ways and Means, and the Joint Committee on Taxation. 

Following his death from pancreatic cancer in July 2020, Lewis became the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the US Capitol Rotunda.