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Child Watch® Column: “John Lewis to Young Leaders: Get In 'Necessary Trouble'”

Release Date: June 6, 2014

Marian Wright Edelman

Not every speaker tells a crowd of young leaders that their job is to get into trouble. But that’s part of the message iconic civil rights warrior and now Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) conveyed at this year’s week-long Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools®’ National Training that began June 1st for nearly 2,000 college age Freedom School servant leaders and site coordinators. They will mentor, teach, and lead Freedom School programs for over 12,500 pre-K through 12th grade students across the country this summer in faith congregations, public schools, college campuses, juvenile detention facilities, homeless shelters, and a range of other settings where the neediest children live.

Freedom Schools seek to empower children through reading wonderful books, to engage parents, and to reweave the fabric of community support for children. John Lewis and Andrew Young spoke movingly at the opening training session celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Freedom Summer, when young White people from around the country joined local Black citizens and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers to open up Mississippi’s closed Jim Crow society and demand the right to vote for Black citizens. Freedom Summer 1964 helped transform Mississippi and American society, but it demanded great sacrifice and courage. Three young people, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, gave their lives after investigating the burning of a local Black church where a Freedom School was to be held, victims of state and White supremacist violence.

As he spoke to today’s young Freedom Schools leaders John Lewis told them that when he was their age getting into “necessary trouble” shaped his life’s mission. As he explained, he grew up poor in rural Troy, Alabama, where his father, a former tenant farmer, had saved enough money to buy his own land. He worked on the farm alongside the rest of his family but was always desperate to get an education. A teacher encouraged him over and over to read all he could. Although he wasn’t allowed in his segregated county library like so many of our generation, he did his best: “I tried to read everything, the few books we had at home, the magazines. We were too poor to have a subscription to the local newspaper, but my grandfather had one, and when he would finish reading his newspaper each day, I would get that newspaper and read it.” He also listened to the radio to learn more about the news outside his small community, and eventually started hearing about new events that would change his life: “In 1955, 15 years old in the 10th grade, I heard of Rosa Parks. I heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard his voice on an old radio, and it seemed like he was saying, “John Lewis, you, too, can do something . . . You can make a contribution.”

John Lewis decided then that was exactly what he would do. He started with the library: “So in 1956, 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and cousins, we went down to the public library in the little town of Troy, Alabama, trying to get a library card, trying to check out some books, and we were told by the librarian that the library is for Whites only and not for coloreds.” A year later, as a high school senior he decided to apply to Troy State College (now Troy University), a White college close to his home—but his application was ignored and unanswered. John Lewis was stopped temporarily—but he was not finished. Without telling his parents or anyone else what he was doing he wrote a letter to Dr. King asking for his help, and Dr. King responded by sending the teenager a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket and inviting him to come to Montgomery to meet with him. By that time John Lewis had enrolled in his first year at American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College) in Nashville, Tennessee. Over his spring break the 18-year-old decided to take Dr. King up on his offer: “So in March of 1958, I boarded a Greyhound bus [and] traveled to Montgomery . . . I was so scared. I didn’t know what to say or what to do, and Dr. King said, ‘Are you the boy from Troy?’ . . . Meeting Martin Luther King Jr., meeting Ralph Abernathy, meeting Rosa Parks, and later meeting Jim Lawson, who taught me the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence, changed my life and set me on a path. And I haven’t looked back since.”

John Lewis explained that his parents and community hadn’t taught him to challenge segregation: “When I would ask my parents about those signs they would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.’” But his experience in the civil rights movement taught him a different lesson that he wanted to share with today’s young leaders: “I got in trouble. I got in good trouble, necessary trouble. I say to you, you’re more than lucky. You are blessed, and you have to use whatever you see to pass it on to someone else. Bless someone else. Be bold. Be brave. Be courageous. Speak up. Speak out. You must get out there and push and pull and help change things and bring about a nonviolent revolution, a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas . . . Someone must put out and say what is going on is not right, it is not fair, it is not just, and we are here to do something about it.”

He told the very rapt audience that getting into necessary trouble in order to stand up for what is right is required of us all: “If we fail to do it, history will not be kind to us.” And he reminded us that this is true even when there is a terrible cost, as with the murders of the three Freedom Summer volunteers in Philadelphia, Mississippi: “Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. I knew these three young men. On the night of June 21st, 1964, almost 50 years ago, these three young men were detained, taken to jail, taken out, turned over to the Klan, where they were beaten and shot and killed. They didn’t die in the Middle East or Eastern Europe or Vietnam or in Central or South America. They died right here in our own country, and they must be looked upon as the founding fathers of the new America, a new way of doing things, a new way of life.”

John Lewis was another of those founding fathers and mothers whose leadership in the civil rights movement and in nearly thirty years as a Member of Congress is helping shape the America we must become. He left his audience with a final encouragement to do the same: “So go out there and be a headlight and not a tail light. Get out there and get in the way, get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and be yourself. It will all work out.” It’s a message young people across our nation and all of us need to hear and act upon today.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by John at: June 23, 2014
Thank you Ms Edelman and thank you Rep. Lewis for your courage and moral leadership! You are an inspiration.

Submitted by Ellen at: June 12, 2014
Dear Ms. Edelman, What a terrific program....young adults taking children seriously....empowering them. My husband and I have enormousrespect for Mr. Lewis, a man who has never lost his authenticity or his humanity. I love his encouraging teen-agers to get into a "little trouble". And, thanks to you for faithfully serving as our conscience all these years! Gratefully, Ellen Farrior, Black Mountain, N.C.

Submitted by Servant Leader L at: June 8, 2014
John Lewis did a great job at telling his story and inspiring us to fight for justice in America. We as young people must realize that we have true power in our voices and actions. Therefore, their is a need for us to become intellectually aware of whats going on around us. This is why reading is so important. We must open our eyes and start to ask questions. Then, once we find understanding we will be empowered to know what we can do to fight back. One message thoroughly communicated at the 2014 Ella Baker Freedom School Training was that we as servant leader interns can start by performing our jobs to the best of our abilities this summer! We can accomplish this through proper preparation, collaborative thinking, and loving our students and peers as God has loved us!

Submitted by John at: June 8, 2014
Please, please, tell the young people that the biggest challenge of their time is to get in touch with their moral values. Whether they believe in Christianity, Muslim, Jewish, etc, they all teach love for God and love for their fellowman. This starts with family. Our young men must learn that taking personal responsibility for their lives begins with a belief in God and a desire to conduct their lives in His order. We cannot have a strong society without our men being an integral part of families... not just to create children, but as leaders, trainers, husbands... being their to guide the children and support the wives to stability. If we don't talk about this problem, we are just kidding ourselves about how to improve life in the black community. The facts: over 70% of our children today are born out of wedlock, the higherst of any other group in America. This leads to poverty in the home, and importantly, low achievement in schools wherever a community has a high concentration of blacks. We can blame unemployment all day long, however, if our kids are not being encouraged to go to school (which is free in America through grade 12) and get a good education, we have to assume responsibility for this... and know that consequences of it. We can no longer blame white people for all of our problems. Despite the fact that their are still racists in, African Americans have made significant progress in all areas of achievement. However, too many of our families are being left behind everyday. Just go through some of the neighborhoods during the day and see young African American men in their 20"s and 30"s hanging out on the street... selling drugs, causing the "bad" kind of trouble. My organization is seeking to address this issue with young children and their parents with After School Bible Classes and tutoring... Summer Enrichment programs that focus on Math, Reading, Career Awareness and Biblical Truths, among other things. These types of programs help to change desires, attitudes and lifestyle choices. No matter what one says, teenagers having babies at 15 & 16 years old is a "bad" idea for their long term growth and development. They are starting life with the need for public assistance as opposed to developing their skills to the fullest to become an independent, contributing tax payer. Sure many women overcome this burden with the support of family and grandmothers, but they are in the minority. An overwhelming number of the unemployed men on the streets each day are a result of out of wedlock births, where the men were absent in their lives and mother did all she could could to raise the child until things just fell apart. God bless you in your efforts. John 8:32 says: Ye must know the Truth and the Truth shall set you Free". We cannot address this issues without understanding the Truth. Once we understand it, we must face it. We cannot fix what we cannot face. Some say just give them the love by supporting them with additional government gifts... But Jesus brought us Love and Truth. Love without the Truth is not genuine love... it's a phony kind of love that placates the material desires but does nothing for the Spiritual and Emotional growth and development of the person... Thus, it cannot be sustained. Please have the leaders in these groups express some of these points. We cannot keep talking about what the white people are doing to us. We must talk about how we can help ourselves by improving our outlook on life and taking full advantage of the educational opportunities available today... which are a result of the suffering of those a generation ago. I was one of 7 students to integrate an all white school in Arkansas in 1965. I have a physical ailment from being beaten. That did not stop me. I went on to graduate from an Ivy League college, worked for a fortune 500 company, established a business and my wife and I have raised 4 children who are Ivy-educated and working in Corporate America. We are now celebrating 35 years of marriage this year. That all happened because of putting God first in our lives. We need to get back to basics of faith, honesty, integrity, hard work and sacrifice for worthwhile causes. Thank you.

Submitted by Tray at: June 7, 2014
I wish I could have been there in person to hear Congressman John Lewis' inspiring speech. Just reading what he had to say brought tears to my eyes. I just hope and pray that our young people will take heed, and gather as much knowledge and wisdom from people who have experienced all kinds of adversity and are still living to share it with all of us.

Submitted by Joyful at: June 7, 2014
John Lewis is truly an inspiration. God bless him for his work.

Submitted by muff at: June 7, 2014
Wisdom in a great way.

Submitted by GrandmaChris at: June 7, 2014
John Lewis' remarks to the 50th Anniversary Freedom School brought memories back to me of that time. I was a middle class mother with 5 children. I marched in our communities March for equality in housing opportunities, education, job opportunities. I pushed a stroller, with a couple young kids walking with me even though my Religious community was not able to agree to back the March as a group. I remember when John Lewis was in the alternate delegation to the 1968 Democratic Convention. Now a granddaughter lives in Atlanta where she works for Quaker Volunteer Service and John Lewis is her congressman. There is still much work to do.

Submitted by Auntie at: June 7, 2014

Submitted by Ms. Ada at: June 6, 2014
Are there any Freedom Schools in TX? I am a former education now residing in McKinney TX ,since Katrina. thank for your continued work and resources to uplift and provide the healthy start need for all God's wonderful gifts to the world, the children.