Fifty-seven years ago, on Sunday, March 7, 1965, nearly 600 peaceful protestors set out from Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama on a 54-mile journey to Montgomery, the state capital. Leading that crowd of patriots marching to demonstrate their desire to exercise their constitutional right to vote, was a young man wearing a tan trench coat and carrying a backpack. As the marchers reached the apex of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a mass of state troopers came into view. Joined by vigilante citizens deputized for force, the troopers unleashed an unprovoked and brutal attack on the demonstrators, leaving many injured - including a 25-year old John Lewis - and rocking to its foundation the collective conscience of America.
Throughout his life of activism, Congressman Lewis was beaten, bloodied, spat upon, insulted, condemned and, often, misunderstood for his contributions to American ideals. He was very proud, and he never gave in to despair; not on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, not in the more than forty jail cells where he was held. He never gave up on the dream; not on the backroads and byways he traveled to register people to vote, not in the halls of Congress.
John Lewis was willing to die for America’s unrealized potential. He never hesitated to put himself in harm’s way to correct a wrong or draw attention to an injustice.
“Have a passion for what you do, but also have a strategy for doing it,” he stressed. Congressman Lewis was passionate about securing voting rights. He also had a strategy. What became known as Bloody Sunday was carefully planned. He knew the risk of being jailed. In fact, he had a book and his toothbrush with him in that backpack. He was prepared to go to jail. Further, he knew that the media attention on the march across that bridge would shine a light on the struggle of Black people in the South who were not permitted to vote.
The strategy worked. President Lyndon B. Johnson, in his impassioned address to the nation the next week, said, “At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.”
The Voting Rights Act was passed later that year.
Congressman Lewis never regretted the sacrifices he made to advance the human condition. He would say to others, “You should never, ever stop working on behalf of this great country. Don’t stop believing in America. Ever. Know that you can make a difference, you can make America better. All you have to do, is get into a little good trouble, necessary trouble.”
It is important to know that you cannot do it alone and that you must align yourself with others. So, do two things: be inspired and be inspiring. Be inspired by those with shared goals and values, as John Lewis was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. who encouraged him to stay hopeful and optimistic, to never give into the forces of bitterness and hate. Be inspired as John Lewis was by Jim Lawson, under whom he studied the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence and learned the way of peace and love as a way of living, not just as a technique.
Inspire others, as Congressman Lewis did when, just a few weeks before his passing, he went to Black Lives Matter Plaza in downtown Washington to demonstrate to future generations the importance of getting into Good Trouble. Congressman Lewis used his body to dramatize that message. Reminiscent of an old African proverb of which he was fond (“when you pray, move your feet”), he would say “use your body to make a difference. March, stand up, sit down, get in the way.”
In the 10 incredible years I had the privilege of serving as his chief of staff, John Lewis taught me some very important lessons. “Decide what are your core values,” he would say. “Never deviate from them and always have them top of mind. Let them be your guide in all that you do.” Indeed, of the civil rights movement, he said “It was love at its best. It is one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you.” Why? Because love was one of his core values.
Toward the end of his life, John asked that we establish the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation. When asked what he would like the Foundation to do, he simply said, “Continue my work, make sure the story gets told, and inspire Good Trouble.” I look to the lessons I learned from him to guide the work of the Foundation.
I believe that if Congressman Lewis were here with us today, he would say: America is the greatest country on earth. Be proud of her. She is not perfect. But she is perfectly imperfect. Her work will never be complete. There will always be more to do. Work hard to protect her. She is worthy of your best efforts in all matters, big and small.
Linda Earley Chastang, Esq., is interim president and CEO, John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation.
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