The late U.S. Rep. John Robert Lewis was one of the giants of recent American history. He was an organizer, and a leader of organized people. He was a leader in American government. He answered the call better than many, putting his body and his career in the service of advancing civil rights for African Americans. Indeed, he served the American experiment in general.
On July 17, he passed into glory.
There is much to be said, much honor to give the longtime representative of Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. On a personal note, as someone with family roots in Georgia, someone who has been on the receiving end of police violence, and as someone who loves the deeply flawed but exceptional thing called the United States of America, I have always taken inspiration from him.
When Barack Obama was inaugurated president, Lewis asked for his signature — the signature of the first Black man to hold the office — on a piece of paper. Obama wrote, “Because of you, John.” Truer words were never written. The rise of America’s first Black president, and many other narrative and material victories in the story of American progress, are owed to those people who were willing to stir things up. Certainly any success that I have had is so owed.
The late civil rights leader and union organizer Bayard Rustin talked of a “group of angelic troublemakers.” Indeed, this was not just the narrative of the civil rights movement, but lived in the conduct and example of its leaders. Lewis spoke often about “good trouble.” This was not an abstract idea, but a specific exhortation: “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble,” he’d say.
To the man who crossed what hopefully soon will be named the Rep. John Lewis Bridge, knowing that in Selma, Alabama, he would be met with violence, we owe a deeper consideration of what these words meant.
From Gallup polling we know that 61% of Americans surveyed “disapproved” of the Freedom Rides in their own time. Fifty-seven percent thought the Freedom Rides, the sit-ins and the marches were “moving too fast” and that they “hurt the Negro’s cause for racial equality.” For many Americans, the actions of the civil rights movement were unpopular, too disruptive, and caused a clear cultural backlash. Despite being obviously morally exigent, many Americans were concerned that justice was coming at a pace too fast for comfort or peace to reign. Yet today, most of us would shudder to call that movement anything but necessary and honorable.
“Good trouble” meant the kind of trouble that would alarm and upset the comfortable. It always has. It now means the kind of trouble that makes elected officials, me included, squirm in our seats. It means the kind that demands affirmative actions on racial and economic equity that cost money. It means getting past the toxic idea that somehow incivility is a wrong more in need of redress than injustice.
It is an honor to be given space in this newspaper and before your reading eyes to eulogize an American great. It is fortunate that I do not need many lines to do it. Here is the obituary I would write for him:
John Robert Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama, in 1940, one of 10 children. A man of God and one of the original Freedom Riders, he organized boycotts, sit-ins, marches and other nonviolent protests for decades. Before Lewis was a 17-term congressman for his Georgia district, which included most of Atlanta, he saw the greatest hearts of his generation murdered for their persistence, and he persisted still.
Always a troublemaker to a society that preferred to sip its racism in comfort, he is now truly angelic, having passed into the arms of a proud God on July 17, 2020. We owe everything to Americans like John Lewis, whether we know their names or not.
In lieu of flowers, we ask that you reconsider those whom you have dismissed because they caused too much trouble, and ask yourself if you are causing enough trouble in the pursuit of justice.
At an unprecedented time in our history, we must ask ourselves how we would like to be eulogized. We get one go-around, and we can use it to be comfortable at the expense of others. There is an alternative, however. We can use it to be in community with angelic troublemakers, and be so transformed. It will not be easy, for either you or me, but it will be worth it.
Ismail Smith-Wade-El is president of Lancaster City Council.