In the Fall of 2017, I saw John Lewis in conversation with filmmaker Ava DuVernay after a live performance score of “Selma” along with a viewing of the film. I remember feeling disoriented, that the man I saw portrayed in the movie that had shown me an America I had never known, was right in front of me. The civil rights movement is often framed as a relic of the past, but here was living proof that it was not that long ago.
I had just seen the infamous “Bloody Sunday” march reenacted, witnessing state troopers brutally attacking the peaceful protestors at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Lewis was beaten and suffered a fractured skull. The utter refusal of those opposed to civil rights at that time felt eerily similar to the students on my college campus, who rejected pleas for a safer and more inclusive university from me and my classmates. When I saw the way officers violently manhandled the Selma protestors, I was reminded of the time an officer threw a Black student to the ground at an on-campus party, in front of all of her peers. Although decades removed from one another, these images were manifestations of the same anti-Blackness; and that gave me deep despair.
While many of the issues presented by Lewis and the film that night were still relevant, it was not lost on me that the year before I had voted in my first election. Unlike Lewis, I did not have to worry about a literacy test or march in protest, I simply had to show up and vote. That is not to say that the civil rights movement eradicated racial discrimination, but it had made a process that was previously impossible in certain areas for someone that looked like me, very easy. And I have many to thank for that, especially Lewis, who was then only a few feet away.
When I learned of Lewis’ death, there was a resurgence of that same despair that I felt in 2017 after the movie screening. As a student at Nashville’s Fisk University, Lewis organized sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, led boycotts and protests to combat voting and racial inequality. His student activism was the blueprint for so many around me at my small southern liberal arts college, and yet it took 18 years for me even to hear his story. It was during my freshman activist rhetoric course that I first learned about Lewis and his notion of “good trouble.” I had always been told that my actions would follow me for the rest of my life, but here was Lewis, someone who had an extensive arrest record but still managed to have a 30-year career in politics; proof of productive activism.
While scrolling through my Twitter feed this week, I was reminded of Lewis before President Barack Obama’s inauguration. His emotional recollection of his struggles reminded me that while change is slow, it is not impossible. He said:
“When we were organizing voter-registration drives, going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought — I never dreamed — of the possibility that an African American would one day be elected President of the United States.”
Lewis dedicated his mind, body and spirit to justice he never banked on seeing in his lifetime. He believed in America’s promise, even though he had yet to experience it. He dedicated his last breath to this commitment to justice. While I am sad that Lewis is not here to see us through another movement, I am grateful for his resilience, which has inspired an entire generation of activists, including me.
I am now 22, around the same age Lewis was when he became nationally recognized as a leader in the civil rights movement. As the world erupts around me — from a global pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement — it is easy to sulk in despair, but that would be a disingenuous way to honor those before me. I want to continue to find “good trouble,” challenge those around me and believe in a justice that I know is possible. His presence is felt, and his legacy honored.
Lewis lived to see the birth of a new movement that he helped set the foundation for. The young people leading this current movement for all Black lives are undoubtedly using strategies that were spearheaded by civil rights leaders, and adapting them as they see fit. The resilience of Lewis is pulsating through this new movement, as young people demand everything from police abolition to student loan forgiveness.
When I prepare to go to the polls to vote this November, I will think of Lewis. Because of his sacrifices, I can drive to my polling station and easily cast my ballot. I live in a more just America because of Lewis. I can only hope that one day when I am gone, a young Black person’s life will be easier because of the work that I did.
Rest in Power, John Lewis.