I joined countless others this Feb. 21 in wishing one of our greatest moral civil rights warriors and servant leaders, Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), a joyous 80th birthday and many more. As Black History Month continues, how fitting to be able to celebrate a genuine hero whose courage and nonviolent actions changed American history.
After his announcement that he was fighting cancer, the outpouring of praise, gratitude, and love for him was immediate, along with confidence in his willingness to face a fight. As he said himself, “I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life…So I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community. We still have many bridges to cross.”
John Lewis has set a high bar for how to confront adversity. Speaking to college-age leaders at a Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools National Training at CDF-Haley Farm, he told them when he was their age getting into “necessary trouble” shaped his life’s mission. Growing up poor in rural Troy, Alabama, he desperately wanted an education and was encouraged by a teacher to read all he could. Excluded from his segregated county library like so many of our generation, he said: “I tried to read everything, the few books we had at home, the magazines. We were too poor to have a subscription to the local newspaper, but my grandfather had one, and when he would finish reading his newspaper each day, I would get that newspaper and read it.” He listened to the radio to hear the news outside his small community, and started hearing about events that would change his life: “In 1955, 15 years old in the 10th grade, I heard of Rosa Parks. I heard of Martin Luther King Jr. I heard his voice on an old radio, and it seemed like he was saying, ‘John Lewis, you, too, can do something … You can make a contribution.’” He decided then that was exactly what he would do.
He tried first to integrate his local library. A year later, as a high school senior, he applied to all-White Troy State College (now Troy University), near his home. His application was never answered. Although temporarily discouraged, he persisted in pushing against the segregated status quo. Without telling anyone, including his parents, he wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asking for help. Dr. King sent the teenager a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket to come to Montgomery and meet with him. John Lewis had already been admitted to American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College) in Nashville, Tennessee, a historically Black institution. Over spring break, 18-year old John took Dr. King up on his offer: “So in March of 1958, I boarded a Greyhound bus [and] traveled to Montgomery… Meeting Martin Luther King Jr., meeting Ralph Abernathy, meeting Rosa Parks, and later meeting Jim Lawson, who taught me the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence, changed my life and set me on a path. And I haven’t looked back since.”
He explained that his parents and community had not taught him to challenge segregation: “When I would ask my parents about those signs they would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.’” But his experience in the civil rights movement taught him a different and crucial lesson he shares with today’s young leaders: “I got in trouble. I got in good trouble, necessary trouble. I say to you, you’re more than lucky. You are blessed, and you have to use whatever you see to pass it on to someone else. Bless someone else. Be bold. Be brave. Be courageous. Speak up. Speak out. You must get out there and push and pull and help change things and bring about a nonviolent revolution, a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas … Someone must put out and say what is going on is not right, it is not fair, it is not just, and we are here to do something about it.” He left the audience with a final encouragement: “Go out there and be a headlight and not a taillight. Get out there and get in the way, get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and be yourself. It will all work out.”
Our country is a profoundly different place today because John Lewis has spent his life speaking out boldly and acting nonviolently against injustice. A courageous servant leader, he has always remained willing to get into necessary trouble. Decades after he survived the brutal police attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama that shocked the nation, he shows us there are still many bridges to cross. The man who has been called the “moral conscience of Congress” spoke out on the floor of the House as he and his colleagues voted to impeach President Trump: “Our nation is founded on the principle that we don’t have kings. We have presidents, and the Constitution is our compass. When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something. Our children and their children may ask us: what did you do? What did you say? … We have a mission, and a mandate, to be on the right side of history.”
In January, as he condemned the Trump administration’s drone strike in Iraq without congressional authorization, he issued another warning: “Failure to learn from the lessons of history means that we are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past.” Let’s all pray for his health and strength and follow his example as he keeps pushing our nation forward.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.