During Easter weekend in 1960 I took my first airplane ride, from Atlanta, Georgia (where I was a senior at Spelman College) to Raleigh, North Carolina, on a plane chartered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) at great SCLC organizer Ella Baker’s behest. She was a brilliant, strategic, tough, and compassionate mentor. She invited student leaders from the sit-in protests happening at largely Black colleges across the South to travel to Shaw University to share experiences and see how we could sustain and strengthen our student movement challenging southern segregation in public areas. Although some in SCLC wanted to incorporate students as its youth arm, during the weekend Ella Baker urged us to form our own independent organization and find our own voice. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born, bringing together freedom hungry fearless college youth with energy and creativity and willingness to push the edges of the envelope. A fellow attendee was a sit-in leader and student from Nashville who became SNCC’s chairman a few years later: John Lewis.
As our nation paused recently in public mourning to say our final goodbyes to this great servant leader, I said goodbye to my longtime dearly beloved friend. For college students during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, as the youngest of the “Big Six” civil rights organizational leaders and the 23-year-old youngest speaker at the March of Washington, John Lewis was our peer and our generation’s voice. But he long ago transcended that early role. He served 33 years as the representative for Georgia’s 5th District and became not only “the conscience of the Congress” but helped fuel the moral conscience of our nation and his lifetime of activism and service ultimately pushed our country closer to its founding ideals. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden said, “We are made in the image of God, and then there is John Lewis. How could someone in flesh and blood be so courageous, so full of hope and love in the face of so much hate, violence, and vengeance?…[P]erhaps it was that he was truly a one-of-a-kind, a moral compass who always knew where to point us and which direction to march.”
When he spoke on the House floor last year as he and his colleagues voted to impeach President Trump, he said: “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something. Our children and their children may ask us: what did you do? What did you say?…We have a mission, and a mandate, to be on the right side of history.” At every step of his journey, from having his skull fractured leading the voting rights march on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to his Congressional leadership championing civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigrant rights to his final public visit to the Black Lives Matter Plaza across from the White House in Washington, D.C., John Lewis was on the right side of history leading us.
Throughout his life John was unfailingly generous with his time nurturing and encouraging young people, including many convened by the Children’s Defense Fund at CDF’s Haley Farm. In one talk with CDF’s young leaders he said his parents and community had not 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.’” As he told our rapt youth audiences and others so often over the years, he rejected that advice: “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…Go out there and be a headlight and not a taillight. Get out there and get in the way. Get in good trouble.”
John participated in a virtual town hall in June with former President Barack Obama and young activists after George Floyd’s murder. As the event ended he told President Obama he was proud of this generation, and President Obama replied: “I told him that all those young people — of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — they were his children. They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they had heard of his courage only through history books.”
I hope young people everywhere in our nation and world will aspire to follow John Lewis’s fearless servant leadership as headlights and not taillights, always get into good trouble, and keep marching, organizing, voting, and running for public office until we have leaders and institutions at every level of government that are worthy of all our people and all of our children.