Representative John Lewis never donned a military uniform, but he fought as hard as any soldier for a nation that never fought as hard for him.
On an Alabama bridge named for a Klansman, where state troopers viciously beat him and other civil rights protesters in 1965, to the halls of Congress, where he denounced a racist president, Lewis saw the unfulfilled promises of democracy and challenged America to make them whole.
Cancer claimed Lewis’s life Friday night. Yet he never succumbed to the cancer of racism that has metastasized in every generation before him and every generation since. For most of his 80 years, he marched for freedom, was arrested more than 40 times for freedom, voted for freedom, and nearly died for freedom. He watched those he loved and admired cut down by assassins, but he never grew weary, never stopped agitating, never stopped reminding the world that he, too, sang “America.”
Whether in the segregated streets of Troy, Ala., where he born and raised, or the seat he held as a longtime Georgia congressman, this son of sharecroppers stared down the evils of white supremacy wherever its bitter seeds sought purchase.
“John Lewis was a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation — from the determination with which he met discrimination at lunch counters and on Freedom Rides, to the courage he showed as a young man facing down violence and death on Edmund Pettus Bridge, to the moral leadership he brought to the Congress for more than 30 years,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Lewis’s longtime friend and Democratic colleague, in a statement after his death.
Lewis was more than the “conscience of the Congress,” as Pelosi called him. He was the conscience of America.
As a child, Lewis asked his parents and grandparents about the “white only” and “colored only” signs so common in his rural town, or why he and other Black children could not sit with white kids at the local theater. Years later, he recalled their response: “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”
Lewis understood early that doing nothing changes nothing. Inspired by Rosa Parks, the yearlong Montgomery Bus boycott sparked by her activism, and a fiery young minister named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis found his calling on a path of righteousness and resistance.
“I got in the way,” Lewis told an audience at an American Library Association conference in 2013. “I got in trouble. Good trouble.” That became his mantra: “Make good trouble.”
In 1995, Lewis made good trouble when he refused to participate in the “Million Man March” in Washington D.C. because of Nation of Islam leader and march organizer Louis Farrakhan’s history of anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ comments. He made it when President Trump profanely excoriated Haiti and some African nations in January 2018. Of the man whose inauguration he skipped a year earlier, Lewis said, Trump’s “words and his actions tend to speak like one who knows something about being a racist. It must be in his DNA, in his makeup.”
Lewis certainly knew a racist when he saw one. Yet he also recognized the dawn of a new hope and resolve in this nation’s streets after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in May.
In his last public appearance in early June, Lewis visited the Black Lives Matter mural painted in the nation’s capital. Though frail, Lewis stood on the street now called Black Lives Matter Plaza, and called the two-block long mural, commissioned by Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, “Very moving. Impressive.”
“I think the people in D.C. and around nation,” he said, “are sending a mightily powerful and strong message to the rest of the world that we will get there.”
If we get there, it will be without Lewis — or Rev. C.T. Vivian, another icon of the civil rights era, who also died Friday. Yet Lewis will be there in every step against white supremacy and systemic racism, pushing us toward progress, and reminding us to “make good trouble.” In death, he has passed the torch. We who remain must ensure that his torch is never extinguished.