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Five Things John Lewis Taught us About Getting in “Good Trouble”

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Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America.” John Lewis made this statement on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 1, 2020 commemorating the tragic events of Bloody Sunday. Bloody Sunday occurred on March 7, 1965 as peaceful protesters were beaten by law enforcement officers for crossing the bridge. Lewis and others like Amelia Boynton Robinson were beaten so badly they were hospitalized.

The context behind the march is significant. The 600-person civil rights march was actually about police brutality. Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old church deacon, was killed by James Bonard Fowler, a state trooper in Alabama. This march also occurred a year and a half after the infamous March on Washington highlighting that little had changed in the lives of Black people in America. Bloody Sunday was highlighted in Ava Duvernay’s Oscar-nominated best picture film Selma. Musicians John Legend and Common won an Oscar for the song “Glory.”

Bloody Sunday is often noted as a pinnacle of Lewis’ life. This defining moment encapsulates five things he taught us about getting in good trouble.

Vote, always

“Your vote matters. If it didn’t, why would some people keep trying to take it away? #goodtrouble” Lewis sent this tweet on July 3, 2018. It highlights his life’s work—equitable voting. One major part of the Civil Rights Movement was Black people gaining the right to vote. This finally occurred with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the Shelby v Holder Supreme Court decision in 2013 essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act and paved the way for widespread voter suppression and gerrymandering.

This is why it is imperative for Congress to act swiftly to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to ensure equitable access to the polls.  Lewis was an original Freedom Rider, participated in many sit-ins, and was arrested dozens of times for people to have the right to vote. “Some of us gave a little blood for the right to participate in the democratic process,” said Lewis. Now, Congress must honor Lewis’ legacy and ensure an equitable participation in the democratic process. As Lewis noted, “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.”

Never too young to make a difference

As a founder and leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis was the youngest person to speak at the March on Washington. Elder civil rights leaders aimed to taper his words. Lewis was critical of the Kennedy administration and the slowness by which broad scale legislation change was occurring at the federal level. Lewis also critiqued civil rights legislation for not addressing police brutality against Black people. Imagine how this moment in the Movement for Black Lives may be different had elder Civil Rights leaders listened to Lewis. Lewis’ youth gave him a vision for a more transformative society that was mostly socialized out and, in some cases beaten out, of older leaders. Lewis teaches us that age is nothing but a number and young people have to be the change they want to see by pushing and forcing older people for equitable change. Older people are often socialized in the current arrangement of society and cannot fully envision a radically different world. Lewis stated, “I want to see young people in America feel the spirit of the 1960s and find a way to get in the way. To find a way to get in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.” Young people can and should push for transformative change and hold us accountable to it.  

Speak truth to power 

“Speak up, speak out, get in the way,” said Lewis. He taught us the importance of speaking up and speaking out. We have to be willing to speak up about injustice, always, no matter the costs. My grandfather who served in two wars earning a Purple Heart and Bronze Star taught me from birth that my silence is my acceptance. Lewis stated, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.” This motto should apply in all aspects of our lives. Lewis epitomizes it and encourages us to not be silent. He was adamant about supporting free speech, but he was also adamant about condemning hate speech. “I believe in freedom of speech, but I also believe that we have an obligation to condemn speech that is racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic, or hateful.”

Become a racial equity broker

Lewis is the personification of transitioning from a political activist to a politician. I frame it as transitioning from a racial equity advocate to a racial equity broker. A racial equity advocate speaks up and speaks out, stands in the gap, and sits at the table to advocate for people who cannot advocate for themselves. There is a saying— “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu and someone is eating you for lunch.” Shirley Chisholm said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Lewis realized that to make transformative change, he had to be at the table and often bring his own chair. Once at the table, he realized that he needed to help draft the documents that got discussed at the table. This led him to becoming an elected official and a racial equity broker to alter, deconstruct, and restructure the laws, policies, procedures, and rules that inhibit racial equity.

Never give up

When Lewis was elected to Congress in 1986, one of his first bills was the creation of a national museum to chronicle the history, culture, and successes of Black Americans. The culmination of this bill was passed in 2003 and opened in 2016 as the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Lewis taught us persistence. He taught us that when a person has transformative ideas, they should not taper those ideas. Instead, they should push those ideas until others get on board. Simply because change is slow does not mean change agents have to move slowly towards it. Lewis was a lightning bolt for equity, social change, and social justice. We must continue his legacy, never forget history, pursue equity, and get in good trouble.

By: Rashawn Ray, brookings.edu


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