5 activists on how they’re carrying Rep. John Lewis’s legacy forward

Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia congressman and icon of the civil rights movement, died Friday at the age of 80.

Throughout his decades-long career, Lewis was known for his activism — from his roots as a Freedom Rider and firebrand organizer of the March on Washington, to the many times he was arrested, some as a member of the US House of Representatives. In his time as a lawmaker, he became an advocate for LGBTQ rights, expanded freedoms for immigrants and refugees, and supported gun reform measures. He continued this work in his final weeks — just a month before he died of pancreatic cancer, he visited Washington, DC’s Black Lives Matter Plaza, one of many places reflecting the current wave of anti-racism protests sweeping the world.

He was known for encouraging people to become activists themselves, saying they should not hesitate to get in “good trouble.” And he inspired many to do just that.

Here, five activists reflect on what Lewis’s legacy meant to them, and how it may be carried forward. Their responses, edited for clarity and length, are below.

Tanya Washington, professor of law at Georgia State University and former director of the John Lewis Fellowship Program

At 21, he was one of the first Freedom Riders; at 23, he was the chairperson of SNCC, and helped organize the March on Washington, and at 25, he was at the Selma protests. I think it’s empowering for young people to recognize that their energy, their perspective is necessary. It’s young people who moved the needle in the civil rights movement. They were college students, high school students. Some were even younger than that — the kids who integrated schools after Brown v. Board were little school kids. I think younger activists will draw from his legacy a sense of power and responsibility: Their contribution can begin right now.

Everyone quotes him saying, “Get in good trouble.” I think what that really has meant to me is to not be afraid to make decisions that are unpopular. What other people might call trouble, through a historical lens will be called progress. It’s inspired me to take risks when I’m guided by my moral compass.

I definitely see [his influence] when I look at the Black Lives Matter movement, and I see the young people in the streets, risking their lives and their health to enforce democracy, to make sure that we have justice as part of our criminal legal system, and that we eradicate racism. I see the same spirit that motivated John Lewis as a young person to get involved. He decides while he’s in college to sign up to be a Freedom Rider, which is not going to end well, just in terms of the risk to life and limb that it entails. But it was something he was willing to die for. And I’m seeing that same commitment made by young people who have been protesting in opposition to the issues, racism, and xenophobia that are all too prevalent in society today. I see that same spirit of youth activism, and that dedication and commitment.

One of the things that I really loved about John Lewis is that he understood that equality is not divisible. He wasn’t just fighting for equality and just for Black people, but for everyone. Unless everyone can enjoy equality, equality doesn’t exist. … I hope we will continue to see people working across intersectionality. It’s not just Black people, it’s trans Black women, it’s poor Indigenous men, it’s people from the LGBTQ community. All across the spectrum, until all of us are treated equally, none of us are treated equally. When he talked about the “beloved community,” he meant everybody.

He lived a life that set the example for how human beings can have an impact. From very humble beginnings, he became an American hero. I am so honored and humbled to have had a chance to work with him and to be inspired by his legacy. And I’ll miss him.

Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF)

[Lewis] really underscored for me the power and the strength that it takes to do civil rights [work], and really crystallized the role of Black people in shaping this nation on an ongoing basis, and forcing this country to live up to its ideals and to deliver on its promises. It is truly by force that it happens — it’s by the force of will and stamina and strategy, on the part of people who have largely been nonviolent.

There’s a strength and power in that that is just immeasurable, and he embodied that completely. He was the epitome of that strength and power that could move mountains and destroy systems and force political hands, just through his tenacity and resolve and strategy. And brilliance — he was absolutely brilliant.

When I look at the faces of protesters on the street today, I see John Lewis. I see the Freedom Riders. … When I see young people going up against police, in military gear, who will wantonly attack them, even though they are only exercising their constitutional right of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, I see the bravery of people like John Lewis all over again. He set an example of what it means to speak truth to power, to look evil in the face and not blink.

One [way to carry forward his legacy] is to continue the unfinished business of building this democracy by securing and protecting the right to vote on an equal basis for all people, and that requires the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the legislation that he put his life on the line for (the Voting Rights Act of 1965), and protect the right to vote during a period of history when it is under severe and pernicious attack.

And the other policy area is the protection of protesters: Ensuring that the methodology that he used to great success is one that continues to be among the tools and the arsenal of people who want transformative change. If we cannot protect protesters — if we allow law enforcement and white supremacists to attack and interfere with peaceful protest — then we haven’t learned anything from the history of people like John Lewis.

It’s just remarkable to me how loving and upbeat and kind he remained, even toward his worst enemies. … Every American owes a debt to John Lewis for his sacrifice and his lifetime of service. He never seemed embittered by the fact that, even at 80, he still had to struggle for the rights that he fought for 55 years ago. He didn’t throw up his hands. He just encouraged others to keep up the fight, and stood right there with them and helped to lead it.

To face those struggles, to still be so generous of spirit and optimistic, it’s remarkable, and it’s the true marker of a whole person, of someone who is so self-possessed and is too strong to have their character marred by the external frailties of this country.

Kamau Chege, manager of the Washington Census Alliance

In 2013, I graduated high school, and shortly afterward, [worked as] an affiliate leader [with] United We Dream. That summer was the big summer for pushing the comprehensive immigration reform bill. We did a whole bunch of actions, but near the fall, as we’re wanting to escalate, members of Congress were demonstrating outside the Capitol, and Rep. John Lewis was arrested.

A couple weeks before that, I had gone down to DC, and we were strategizing how people were going to push [for the bill]. I went to talk to the Congressional Black Caucus, and was able to catch Rep. Lewis as he was walking. He was a fast walker! He was running late to a vote. I was explaining the bill, and asked, “Can we count on you?” He said, “You can count on me,” and gave the thumbs up.

I was young in 2013 — I was 18 years old — and this was somebody who was in our history and AP Gov classes, with the PBS Eyes on the Prize series. This is how the younger millennials understood him.

It wasn’t ’til the action where he was arrested, and I was watching that … from afar, [where I] got this sense of, ‘This is his life’s work, in some ways: getting arrested for racial justice.’ He’s been doing this since he was my age; he joined SNCC when he was young.

After news came down that he had passed, one of the things I was thinking about, and I’ve been thinking about the past few years — my family has been here for 20 years, and we’ve been undocumented for 17 — is what kind of country my parents thought they were immigrating to.

They were probably trying to come to a country where everyone was guaranteed a dignified life. Jobs and justice. That’s a country that John Lewis probably did not see when he was young … but it’s one that he got to see the beginnings of by the time I met him, in 2013, in the House, pushing for and alongside the new currents of movements.

[In 2013,] we’d be training for civil disobedience. Part of that would include reading about SNCC, what did they do, what kind of actions did they use, how were they able to push things forward and build a movement that a lot of people could see themselves in.

You run into a lot of John Lewis’s work, and how he ran SNCC at the time, and that’s still common. There’s still people from SNCC that advise young organizers now. And that meant that we saw ourselves as not starting something new, but in a lineage and a tradition of young people in general, and young Black and brown organizers, protesting and pushing to make sure that we grow up in the kind of country that John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and the rest were shaping.

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund

He deeply believed in democracy. There were American founders who believed in creating this new nation, and they had some ideas, and explored a philosophy with democracy, but their actions show that they didn’t believe in the fullness of American democracy. They were the founders of the country, but not of democracy. They didn’t have the foresight to see John Lewis as a member of Congress, or to even see him as human enough to be able to vote.

John Lewis is one of the forefathers in this country of true democracy, who really internalized and believed in the expansion of the vote, not just for Black people but for all citizens. He believed in equality for all people. The forefathers didn’t believe that. He believed that.

I think he had an acute awareness of the work of young people, and of when young people are [being] marginalized in the movement. He provided a lot of grace and space for young people, which is why one of the last things he did was go out to [Washington, DC’s] Black Lives Matter Plaza. That was a message of, ‘I’m in solidarity with you.’ He was able to bridge this political world and this activist world, and understand the evolution of how movements take place.

The last time I saw him was this year in the Selma-Montgomery march [at the Edmund Pettus Bridge]. I didn’t think he was going to come this year, because of his cancer. … As we get to the top of the bridge, I’m standing there, the crowd stops. … He walks up to the crowd, like Moses parting the sea. I’m directly in front of him. I knew that was his last speech. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew.

As an activist, the weeks prior to that had been really tough. … I was really feeling overwhelmed. I’m looking at this man who is literally battling cancer, to actually have the courage, to actually get the strength, and you could tell he was weak. He speaks to us, and it was just what I needed to feel affirmed. Even in that moment, I knew that I couldn’t ever stop this work. There’s a song, “Sweet Honey in the Rock:” “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

Here’s this 80-year-old man who is in Congress, who could literally just go sit at home and do what he wants and just be loved. He knew the importance of that moment, but he also knew the importance of that work. I felt that I, along with millions of others, were knighted. I felt affirmed and knighted in that moment, that our work was necessary.

I think it is not good enough to go back to the place from which we came. We are in a relay. We’ve got to take it forward. There’s a fragility [to] American democracy. … When you ever have your citizens in a place where they can fully participate, fully engage, that’s where you build patriotism. You don’t build patriotism by forcing people to acknowledge a flag that has been a symbol of hatred and racism. You build patriotism by creating the space for American citizens to engage, to be affirmed, and demonstrate their God-given agency.

Raquel Willis, director of communications of Ms. Foundation for Women; founder of Black Trans Circles

I met the congressman in 2016. He met with a group of organizers in Atlanta who were part of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a powerful experience. He talked about his experiences and really gave us encouragement around the activism and the organizing work that we were already doing.

His lifelong commitment to liberation work is inspiring, I think particularly at the beginning of his organizing career. It’s important to understand that, no matter what age you are, you can get into the fight, and this is really, like it was for him, a lifelong commitment. So, we can’t expect there to be quick, flash-in-the-pan fixes for these systems of oppression. We have to be invested in the future.

The movement that is happening now is just the continuation of Black liberation work that has happened for centuries. We like to have this idea that these movements are completely separate, but really, a lot of what has fueled [activists today] has come from the movements before. There’s a direct line to the civil rights movement from where we are now in the movement for Black lives.

Particularly in this election year, I think his work around strengthening folks’ access to electoral power is important, but I also think that sometimes what’s more important is the organizing that happens on the ground amongst the people, just getting people involved, beyond voting. There’s so many different ways that people can transform society, and I think we often only, or mostly, focus on electoral power.

When it comes to organizing, you can organize around so many different things, that what’s important is stretching the muscle. I think of organizing as a creative endeavor, so we have to be thinking about ways that we can expand access in whatever instances or spaces that we’re in.

I think it’s important when any figure dies that we hold the honor that we have for them, but that we hold the hard critiques that we may have about their decisions or some of their rhetoric while they were here. We do a disservice in trying to paint anyone as perfect. I think we can hold complicated feelings about figures without throwing out their legacy.

We should certainly be grateful for the strides that a figure like the congressman made, and we can also think about the ways that we can hold those critiques, honor those critiques and make a commitment to grow in our own work and be better figures for generations to come. I think a lot of what we can learn from any figure’s life is there’s so much more work to do, and there’s so many more ways to open doors for generations to come.

I hope that folks will continue to be invested in the organizers who are doing work on the ground today. We have a society that loves to look at our history of organizing with rose-colored glasses. Folks talk about the “civil rights movement” now, but at the time [those activists] were very maligned, and there wasn’t a genuine support for the work that they were doing, and that still continues today. I think we have to be reflective on the ways that we may critique current movements without really engaging with what they’re saying or what they’re fighting for.

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