Bankole: John Lewis inspired courageous, creative change
Congressman John Lewis who died last Friday is being remembered as an American hero of the civil rights movement for his tenacity to endure the beatings that came from billy clubs and other forms of brutality. That included the historic 1965 march in Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Alabama state troopers attacked Lewis and protesters, fracturing his skull.
Others are highlighting the fact that Lewis, one of the most prominent victims of police brutality in the Jim Crow South, did not emerge out of the crucible of the civil rights movement with bitterness and hatred. Instead, despite the attack dogs and firehoses, he embraced a message of love when it was difficult to do so.
But the Georgia Congressman, who marched alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington and who always encouraged young people to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble,” should be remembered for his courage. His audacity to lead a revolution against the agents of white supremacy and the forces of a racist apartheid system under Jim Crow is what saved the soul of America.
American democracy as we know it, would not be what it is today without the creative fights led by Lewis and C.T. Vivian, another giant of the civil rights movement, who died on the same day that Lewis succumbed to pancreatic cancer. Together these men fought white resistance and terror and worked to rescue our nation from the clutches of racial segregation.
“We are tired. We are tired of being beat by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people 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,” Lewis said during the March on Washington.
“We do not want to go to jail, but we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood and true peace. I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until a revolution is complete," he continued. "We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution. In the Delta of Mississippi, in Southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation the black masses are on a march for jobs and freedom.”
To preserve the legacy of Lewis, we must push for real changes in the criminal justice system and to finally bring an end to police brutality. Weeks before he died, Lewis noted that he was inspired by the demonstrations being led by the Black Lives Matter movement not only in America, but across the world because it conveyed a renewed sense of activism by young people who are fed up that the status quo isn’t moving fast enough to make changes.
Lewis' nod to the Black Lives Matter movement handed over the reins of leadership to young people building on the marches that were organized in the 1950s and 1960s.
“How we respond to resistance must be exemplified by the goal we are trying to reach,” said civil rights icon Bernard Lafayette, a personal friend of Lewis and Vivian, who was national coordinator of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, the watershed moment of the civil rights movement.
Lafayette told me days after Lewis’ death that it is now up to young people to continue the battle to reform policing in America and demonstrate the kind of courage that leaders of the civil rights movement showed when they faced strong resistance.
“John Lewis was bold and courageous in his time. His spirit of tenacity, organizing and focus on the prize of civil rights inspire me to keep pushing, even when others don’t agree,” Meeko Williams, a leading Detroit activist told me.
Williams said what he admired most about Congressman Lewis was the fact that, “He preached peace and told us we have to think outside the box and be creative.”
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