U.S. Congressman John Lewis did not serve as pastor of a church.
He did not lead a denomination. He was not president of a college or university. As far as I can tell, he never worked in the private sector.
Instead, John Lewis spent his entire adult life working, fighting, walking and talking about delivering the United States from its addiction to injustice, hate, greed and hypocrisy.
And he did it by looking for, making, getting into and urging others to join him in getting into what he called “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
That good trouble involved deliberately placing himself in dangerous, even deadly situations.
It involved challenging white supremacy, bigotry, privilege, hypocrisy and sense of impunity.
And it involved confronting black critics ranging from Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X (who criticized Lewis for not embracing Black nationalism and his commitment to nonviolence) to Thurgood Marshall (who criticized Lewis for engaging in civil disobedience and public protests).
Through it all, Lewis remained steadfast and unmovable.
He believed that “good trouble” is “necessary.” He believed people can change – yes, and that even an entire nation can be redeemed – by people willing to get involved in “good trouble.”
And Lewis refused to permit himself to despair, despite the many horrors and tragedies he experienced.
Lewis was born and grew up in Alabama when Birmingham was site for bombings by the Ku Klux Klan. He lived in Alabama when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed.
He was beaten on Bloody Sunday, along with other Black people who were beginning a march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Lewis knew white congregations and pastors that harbored Ku Klux Klan members and members of the White Citizens Council who plotted, carried out, condoned and covered up a campaign of racial terrorism against Black people who tried to register to vote, who tried to vote and who tried to travel, dine and rest free from racial segregation.
Time and again, Lewis could have surrendered to despair. He could have railed against the idea that the United States can be a multiracial society where all persons are treated with equal dignity as children of one Creator.
Or Lewis could have thrown up his hands and decided he had suffered enough, hoped enough, tried enough and been disappointed enough.
Lewis could have decided he deserved to rest, retire, relax and retreat from troublemaking to a life of privilege and protection from arrests, the dangers of civil disobedience and the stings and arrows of people who criticized his principled adherence to nonviolence, as well as others who criticized his principled insistence on making “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
But Lewis refused to resign from making trouble. At the same time, he also refused to allow the rest of us to be content as his spectators or mere fans.
When one of my sons and I met him several years ago when he visited Little Rock, Arkansas, we were amazed by how passionately and vigorously Congressman Lewis spoke to the audience and afterward encouraged us and every other person – individually – to get into “good trouble.”
Congressman John Robert Lewis traveled, lectured, cheered, counseled, consoled, corrected, embraced, affirmed and inspired at every turn.
Despite many battles, tragedies, sorrows and disappointments, Lewis kept his faith in the movement for justice, peace and truth.
Yet, he was not naïve.
Congressman Lewis recognized, perhaps better than most people and certainly better than most politicians, the real and rising threat to democracy, justice, peace and truth posed by fascism, greed, militarism, racism, sexism and imperialism.
I think that is why he refused to attend the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States. He also never attended a State of the Union address delivered by Trump.
However, Trumpian authoritarianism is not the only threat to democracy, justice and peace in the United States.
When the U.S. Supreme Court by its 2013 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder to invalidate the pre-clearance provision of the historic Voting Rights Act, Congressman Lewis understood the precious right to vote for which he marched, was beaten, jailed and experienced the murder of friends was under new attack.
On July 16, the day before Lewis died, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a federal appeal involving a challenged Florida law that prohibits persons convicted of felonies from voting unless they have paid fines, fees and restitution (which the federal district judge that struck down that law termed a “pay-to-vote system”).
Lewis knew protecting the right to vote allows for peaceful change, even peaceful revolutionary change.
So his death a day after the Supreme Court refused to review a challenge to Florida’s “pay to vote” system is all the more sobering and saddening in light of the November 1962 statement by President John F. Kennedy – which Martin Luther King Jr. repeated in April 1967 – that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Congressman John Lewis joined the ancestors before God the evening of July 17 after C.T. Vivian of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference made his transition earlier the same day.
We who have been touched by their lives feel a deep sense of loss.
But I will forever cherish and be inspired by the memory of John Lewis saying in his beautiful and bold way:
- “When you see a situation that is wrong, don’t be afraid to get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”
- “I keep believing that we can change things.”
- “We all have been called to do something.”
- “You get knocked down, … get up.”
- “We will create the Beloved Community.”
Rest in Peace, Beloved Brother, Father, Elder and Prophet. We thank God for your courageous and loving example and fellowship. Rest in peace and power.
We will continue making good and necessary trouble for justice, peace, democracy, truth and hope.
Photo: Wendell Griffen visits with Congressman John Lewis at a book signing in April 2014 during Lewis’ visit to Little Rock for the Arkansas Literary Festival. Credit: Roger Robinson / QVS Photography (qvsphotography.com)
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a circuit court judge in Arkansas.