By Evander Baker
I didn't know "Congressman John Lewis." And I don't mean that in the sense that I'd never met him or got to know him as a person.
I mean that I couldn't summarize his Wikipedia article. I didn't know if he marched with Dr. King or not. Even though I'm sure I've heard his speeches, including his speech as a 23-year old, I didn't remember them or the points and quotable lines within them. I could simply guess that he was a U.S. Representative of a lengthy tenure.
However, I don't believe that is due to the uncommon ignorance of Black American history nor do I think it's because we've made more of the life of John Lewis in death as we often do with public figures. It is more likely a matter of being a 30-something year old who hasn’t lived as long as Lewis had been in Congress. His activism before my birth isn’t in my memory as it is for my parents and grandparents. It is living history.
So to summarize what would be in a Wikipedia article, John Robert Lewis was born and raised in Troy, Alabama. He came up on a farm wanting to become a preacher. As a teenager, he was inspired by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., and he went on to meet both. He graduated from Fisk University, was ordained as a minister, and helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. He spoke on the same program as Dr. King when he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech some of us replay on January 19th or somewhere in February. After work in the Carter administration and on the Atlanta City Council, he ran for Congress, won the seat, and never relinquished it. While in Congress helping to create legislation, Lewis was still leading sit-ins and protests from his position.
Perhaps those simple facts are all things most Americans knew. But over the life of a through-and-through civil rights activist, I could only note remembering his nickname as the “Conscience of Congress,” quick lines on the evening news, and an image people older than me convey when we’re consuming the same wire feed. Before I was born, he had been beaten for his civil disobedience and still advocated for nonviolent, loving means to justice and equality to millions. After I was born and was old enough to understand social issues better, he was already a United States Representative telling his story and continuing the fight from within the legislative branch of our country.
Thanks to the Internet, I was able to find the context of many of John Lewis’ most memorable quotes. I listened to the youthful conviction when he spoke at the March on Washington, and I listened to the wizened interviews recalling those experiences with the hindsight of a life lived for justice. And even though I can’t ever recreate what it would be like to be inspired in 1963 as a black American and to be motivated despite seeing black people like me attacked by the very establishment meant to protect us (well, maybe I can relate to the latter bit somewhat,) perhaps I can approach it with some objectivity.
During that speech in D.C., he said, “And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now!”
Nearly 50 years later in his book, Across that Bridge, he stated, “Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term.”
That’s the kind of effect that even Dr. King couldn’t have. John Lewis was in the fight for so long that he could keep his youthful passion for justice and learn that it takes time to see those social changes come to pass. Then he could share that wisdom with us as we become aware of the failings of our world despite the progress he and many others have made.
So when protests seem to last for years and decades, we can already know that it won’t be fruitless. We can be emboldened to continue to get in the way.
There are many quotes I’ve come across since his death that I have heard before and did not attribute to him like how I didn’t know a lot of Queen songs were actually songs by Queen. But honestly, it is on each of us to find what resonates most clearly and incorporate it into our own fight for justice. So go find your own inspiration in his words, by golly.
John Lewis in the earlier days of the Civil Rights Movement may have been part of the memories of many older people, and those days are historical context to me. But all of his life, even when you look at it only for an evening or two, is a unique inspiration.
Either from someone finding the origins and meaning of “good trouble” or an activist inspired by him that inspires a future activist, John Lewis won’t need to be known by name to have an impact in the lifetimes past his own. But his name will be known, and what isn’t attributed to him will still be inspiration.
My inspiration from John Lewis will be to get in the way when it is necessary and to not be discouraged when the action I must take now doesn’t immediately yield the justice we seek. And should life begin to look more just, I must always continue to work for justice whenever I see injustice.
John Lewis is done working though. May he rest easily.
Evander Baker is a public health official and resident of Athens