By now, you’ve likely heard the news: Congressman John Robert Lewis died on Friday, July 17, 2020.
He was an icon of the civil rights movement, involved as he said,
I, for one, appreciate his vision, his work, his sacrifice, his commitment, and his dedication. I appreciate all Mr. Lewis did and all he endured in service to justice.
This is not the post I had planned for today. But it’s the one I needed to write. Especially as, over the last two days, I read about his life and listened to the tributes about his legacy. Especially after reading both versions of his 1963 “Speech at the March on Washington.”
Yes, I’ve heard this speech before. But to read it in its entirety — in the midst of what is unfolding in the United States 57 years later with regards to racial, social and economic justice — well, it is a bit jarring.
I know you can go online and read it for yourself or go to YouTube, but let me share below a few quotes that I found poignant:
- Mr. Lewis’ speech opens with, “We march for jobs and freedom…”
- He talks about living in “constant fear of a police state.”
- He talks about voter suppression.
- He said, “American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation.”
- To those who said, “be patient.” He responded with: “How long can we be patient?”
The stories he shared throughout his speech, on August 28, 1963, ring true for today. It’s as if the names and cities were changed, but the details remained the same.
If we focused on what hasn’t changed in 57 years, it’d be easy to fall into despair.
But even after all he witnessed and endured, Mr. Lewis had an incredible spirit of hope. Or, “durable hope” as described by John Dickerson. In fact, he was always encouraging us. Example: This is what he said on Twitter in 2018, “Do not get lost in the sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Each time I read the quote above, I hear an invitation for you and me.
It’s an invitation to lead from the front. Just as he did.
Whatever is your vocation, you, too can lead from the front. You don’t have to be a civil rights leader, on the front lines of a protest, or work as a politician. When you see injustice in any form, you, too, can make a commitment to be part of the process to change it.
It’s an invitation to be inclusive. Just as he was.
Vox Media put together a collection of six of his speeches from 1963-2019. In each one he addresses inclusion in some manner. In one speech he talks about “build[ing] coalitions that speak to the needs of those who ‘have been left out and left behind’.” In another, he says, “You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love.”
To me, his entire body of work is an example of inviting people to the table to discuss their differences so that, together, they can map out a game-plan that respects and honors their shared humanity.
It’s an invitation to take the baton…and pass it when it’s your turn to do so. Just like he did.
I saw an interview wherein he described how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invited him to join the movement after receiving Mr. Lewis’ letter (even though he was young). This is an example of getting the baton.
Fast forward to last month when Mr. Lewis visited the Black Lives Matter Plaza in DC. Looking back on that day now, and it seems like it was a symbolic way to pass along the baton to today’s young protesters. And a call-to-action to us all, really.
The tributes this weekend have been plentiful, deservedly so. In their own way, what they say to me about Mr. Lewis’ legacy is this: never doubt your ability to make a difference.
I am also reminded how often it is that the people who tend to leave the greatest legacy often never set out to do that. They were just doing what they felt called to do.
Yes, Mr. Lewis there is.
I will do my part to get in good trouble and continue the social revolution. My dear reader, how about you? Furthermore, what does “good trouble” look like in your life and work? I’d love to know.