The body of John Lewis will be laid to rest this week, but the legacy of his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement will live on. In his role as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he was the youngest person to speak at the March on Washington in August 1963. While his words that day are not as well remembered as those of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who spoke after him that day with his “I Have a Dream” speech, the message of John Lewis is as relevant today as it was then. He exhibited a style of frank speaking that day that became famous over the decades of his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement when he told the crowd:
“We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of people being locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler ‘be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom, and we want it now!”
He must have had some sense of satisfaction when last month with District of Columbia Mayor Muriel E. Bowser he visited the Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House and stood where the Black Lives Matter message was painted in the street. That day was in sharp contrast to the day in 1965 when he marched with others in the Civil Rights Movement across the bridge in Selma, Alabama, and suffered a skull fracture from being hit in the head with a police baton in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
John Lewis was the last of the great civil rights leaders of the 1960s. He lived long enough I believe to realize that his message was being more widely heard than ever before in this country. Should John Lewis be beginning his career today rather than ending it, I have no doubt he would be at the forefront of Black Lives Matter. While Lewis experienced the police batons, dogs and fire hoses, others today have felt the knee of white authority pressing on their necks or bullets hitting them in the back. The words “I cannot breathe” have come to be more than the last words of individuals whose lives were being snuffed out but are the words of generations living under a society of oppression because of the color of their skin. I cannot breathe means to many that they cannot live freely in an unjust and discriminatory society.
John Lewis never gave up through many challenges that are now being chronicled by other writers. In recent years I have appreciated his efforts to get the Congress to take action to end gun violence that affects communities of color disproportionally. What would John Lewis have us do? He offered this advice: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just: say something, do something. Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” We can participate in making a more just society when we follow John Lewis in getting into necessary trouble!
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.