This week our nation and community lost one of the great men of the last half-century, U.S. Representative John Lewis. His legacy of freedom-fighting and justice-seeking stretched from the Jim Crow era to the Black Lives Matter movement.
When Hollywood dramatizes his life, it will read like a fictional movie character created to span the entire civil rights movement through the eyes of one person.
But we must remember, it was all true.
A child of sharecroppers, growing up he questioned why public libraries were for Whites only. At the age of twenty in 1960, Lewis would become one of the original thirteen Freedom Riders, whose bus rides were to challenge segregated seating in the South. At 23, he became the chair of the influential Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). During his lifetime, he was arrested more than 40 times protesting segregation and nearly lost his life on the Selma Bridge due to police violence.
As the movie dramatization progresses, we’d learn about his first unsuccessful bid for elected office in the 1970s, and his eventual election to Congress in 1986, a position he would hold for 17 terms. We’d see him standing next to Barack Obama at his first inauguration in 2009, the only living speaker there from the 1963 March on Washington. Congressman Lewis went on to serve for more than a decade before his death from cancer at 80.
The Hollywood story of John Lewis’s life would suggest his exceptionalism. You will be led to believe he wasn’t like other young Black men, that there was something different about him. The movie will stress his most essential legacies came later in life, working quietly within the system.
But we must remember, that is a lie.
John Lewis led through inspiring others to follow by example. His knack for leadership came seemingly from his ability to relate to the People, and people to him. He lived by a simple motto, “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.”
John Lewis was also a revolutionary, a lifelong activist and organizer, he was a supporter of Black Lives Matter because he understood the necessary use of civil disobedience. He wrote, “Do not get lost in a 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.”
One way we can proactively fight this whitewashing of history is to recognize the potential of John Lewis’ life in every one of the young people we serve at Larkin Street. For in material terms, he didn’t have much more than any of them when he was their age, and as Lewis got older, he never gave up on young people either. This is the gift you can give to the world as well. Thank you for your dedication to the youth of Larkin Street.