It is hard to believe John Lewis is dead. Having thought of him as a hero for so long, it is hard to settle into the knowledge that he does not dwell here as he did. The story of his life offers us so much richness and wisdom. I don’t want to let him go. I don’t want to assign him to the pages of history.
In February of 2017, he came to my school to speak at our Black History Month Assembly. As usual, I prepared our student poets. Two of them would read at this year’s assembly because we wanted to give Rep. Lewis as much time as possible to speak to our student body. In the cavernous St. Aloysius Church, on North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C. before our student body of 1,000 boys and another hundred or more faculty and staff, it was going to be quite a moment. The poets Deion and Jirhe read beautifully. Their poems were crafted and rich. These were two excellent poets. Below is Jirhe, Congressman Lewis, and me.
Rep. Lewis spoke a bit about his upbringing and then about his perspective. He saw himself in the world as a human living amid unjust structures. This is his location, his place of being, his context. Because of that, he saw it as essential that humans who want to build a more just and peaceful world must disrupt the world as it is. We must, as his famous words say, “Get in the way. Make some trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.” But you can only think it makes sense to “make trouble” if you think the world as it is, is not right. And this was John Lewis’ perspective and his gift to us. The world is largely an unjust place. People suffer. That’s the default setting. We, if we want to create, build, and love a more gentle world into being, we have to admit that, and then get in the way. “Make trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.” It is much easier to think the world is good and easy. It is much easier to think things will sort themselves out. But as Dr. King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” time is neutral. Left to its own, time doesn’t “make” anything turn out right. It is up to us, and how we use our time, that is crucial. And for John Lewis, it was about admitting the injustices in the world and then getting in their way. Troubling them. Making good trouble.
John Lewis was born in the country, on a farm outside of Troy, Alabama. His parents were sharecroppers. He preached to his chickens. He wore a suit to school. That’s how badly he wanted to be a preacher. He hid under his family’s front porch so he could dodge working in the fields and go to school. He wrote a letter to Dr. King after hearing him on the radio and eventually went to meet him at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. Dr King would often jokingly refer to John Lewis as “the boy from Troy.”
John Lewis wanted to attend Troy State University and Dr. King said they would help him if Lewis’ parents were ok with it. They could lose their jobs, their sharecropping status. They weren’t ok with it and John had to ditch that dream. Instead, he went to American Baptist Seminary in Nashville. Here he met Bob Lawson who would teach Lewis and others, including Diane Nash, the practice of nonviolence. This settled in John Lewis’ soul and he never strayed from his deep belief that nonviolence was not only the best tool, as Dr. King would say, he also believed it was the method that most imitated Jesus of Nazareth. That mattered to John Lewis.
Those Nashville students sat in at lunch counters, using the nonviolent methods they’d learned. Eventually they won. Then John Lewis joined the Freedom Rides. He was in the original group who were beaten and whose bus was burned. He would learn suffering. Just like his mentor, Dr. King, learned suffering too. John Lewis would be in on the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and as its head, he was the youngest speaker at the 1965 March on Washington. He marched in Selma because he had promised the family of Jimmy Lee Jackson, who was murdered in Selma, that he would stay in the struggle there. Of course that was where he met fate– on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He was beaten badly and his skull was fractured there.
He would leave SNCC eventually as Black Power philosophies took over the group. He was arrested more than forty times in civil disobedience, including one time landing him in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Prison.
He would work on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. As most of my readers know, he ran for city council in Atlanta and eventually for Congress. He would support women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, gun control, and other progressive causes. If the American ideal is the ever-widening circle, John Lewis was its advocate. He was spat on by Tea Party Republicans during the debates over Obamacare, he would speak up strongly for LGBTQ rights, especially after the Pulse Nightclub massacre. John Lewis was, as many have said, “the conscience of the Congress.” In December, 2019 he announced that he was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer. This is one of the most cruel cancers and this is what took his life.
I remember writing an essay about him as a college freshman at Loyola Marymount University back in the 1970s. I recall my professor telling me the topic was so important it was crucial that I write a better essay. (I began college as a poor writer. I’d like to think some things have changed.)
When I read of his life back then, he began to sink into my soul. He was religious at a young age, wanted to preach, hoped to build a more just world. I saw him as a personal hero. In my first year of teaching at a public high school in California, I remember telling the English Department chairperson that I was assigning students to write about John Lewis. The department chair said “Who’s that?” I knew then he would always be my hero.
His great gift is his perspective. He was not afraid to see the world as an unjust place. That doesn’t mean he lived a depressed and morbid life. It doesn’t mean he never saw beauty or felt joy. He just never took the world’s goodness all that seriously. He knew it was a place where most people suffer. This is simply a fact. It’s a fact that most of us would love to ignore. Thankfully, John Lewis could not ignore that fact. John Lewis would not ignore that fact. That left him to make his life’s work about “getting in the way” and “making good trouble, necessary trouble.” Let’s keep up his spirit.
Let’s not take the easy road of assuming the world will sort itself out. It won’t. We have to “make trouble.” We can best honor John Lewis’ life by continuing the struggle to “make good trouble, necessary trouble.” I intend to do just that.
Art Credit: The mural at top is by Thomas Evans, also known as I am Detour. He is an artist in Denver, Colorado.
Photograph 1 : L to R: Jirhe Love (student poet) John Lewis, Joseph Ross
Photograph 2 : Selma, Alabama, Emory University photograph
Photograph 3 : Jackson, MS, in the public domain