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The Moral Clarity of John Lewis Will Echo for Generations

On Friday, the civil rights icon and Georgia representative died at age 80. Lewis’s commitment to nonviolent activism—and message to “get in good trouble”—continues to inspire a nation.

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Civil rights activist and Georgia Representative John Lewis died on Friday. He was 80 years old. In December, Lewis was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and resolved to keep working during his treatment. In June, Lewis said his health was improving, but then things took a turn for the worse. Lewis died within hours of another civil rights leader, C.T. Vivian—a partner to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who shared Lewis’s commitments to nonviolent activism in the 1960s. Vivian was 95.

In May 1961, Lewis and a dozen other Freedom Riders launched their famous campaign to desegregate buses in the South. As the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader and a principal organizer in August 1963, Lewis addressed the March on Washington. Lewis led 600 marchers in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965—a.k.a. Bloody Sunday—when local police beat and gassed the procession at the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named after a Ku Klux Klansman) en route to the state capital, Montgomery. “I thought I saw death,” Lewis often recalled.

In order for history to contain John Lewis, the centuries had to split him in two. There was John Lewis the civil rights leader, who encouraged his fellow idealists to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.” And then there was John Lewis the Congressional Democrat, whom Capitol Hill subsumed into its dismal pageantry. Lewis served 17 consecutive terms, representing Atlanta. Given his bona fides and his magnanimous style, Lewis embodied classic righteousness in an otherwise cynical and unpopular Congress. Three years ago, Lewis skipped Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, and the two men feuded ever since; Lewis disputed Trump’s legitimacy given the earliest theories about Russian interference in the 2016 general election, and Trump associated Lewis with “burning and crime-infested inner cities.” (Trump feuded with the late Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, in similar terms. Cummings died in October.) Nancy Pelosi announced Lewis’s death, and Barack Obama commemorated Lewis in a blog post. Lewis’s seniority afforded him some grudging respect from his opponents in Washington D.C. too. Mitch McConnell recalled joining hands with Lewis and singing “We Shall Overcome” in the U.S. Capitol. With some delay, Trump tweeted out his condolences.

How do you even begin to adequately honor John Lewis in this moment? Lewis died two months into the massive unrest and nationwide protests against police brutality that arose in response to George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis on May 25. In his final weeks, Lewis renewed his commitments to nonviolent resistance. He spelled out the distinction between “good trouble,” such as the popular marches spanning the globe, and political violence, such as the vandalism at storefronts in Manhattan and Chicago and arson at a police station in Minneapolis. “Be constructive, not destructive,” Lewis told the protesters in his home district on May 30.

Two weeks after Lewis issued his statement, Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe (now charged with felony murder) shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot, escalating the tension between protesters and police in the city. The violence among unarmed protesters pales in comparison to violence among police. Lewis understood as much. He didn’t regard nonviolence as a political constraint for civil rights activists but rather as a common ideal for everyone. Lewis was one of few leaders who could preach such moderation without seeming to preach centrism, cynicism, and surrender.

Many young activists getting into “good trouble” in the months since George Floyd’s death have expressed second thoughts about the political advantages and ethical implications in nonviolent resistance. Some have cited Dr. King, grousing in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” about “the white moderate ... who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” King, Lewis, Vivian, and other civil rights leaders resisted the popular urge to conflate nonviolent resistance as a political method and general moderation as a political outlook. In his 1998 memoir Walking With the Wind, Lewis renewed his commitment to nonviolent resistance. “I think it is a mistake for people to consider disorganized action, mayhem, and attacks on other people and property as an extension of any kind of movement,” Lewis wrote. “It is not.”

But Lewis also wrote about the civil rights movement as a long, complicated, and boundless mission with no determinate end point; a mess of tempers and tactics, indignities and achievements, miscommunication and masterful rhetoric. In his May 30 statement about the protests in Atlanta, Lewis didn’t lead with admonishments against rioters. He led with his own recollection: “Sixty-five years have passed, and I still remember the face of young Emmett Till,” he began. Lewis never humored the distinction between his generation—the good, respectable, well-tailored civil rights activists of yesteryear—and the Black Lives Matter protesters of today. His commitments to nonviolent resistance weren’t generational pronouncements. His commitments were timeless. But the time flies.

“I had never bothered collecting or saving anything from Dr. King back when we worked together,” Lewis wrote in Walking With the Wind. “I was too much in the present during that time to think that it would someday be the past.”

In his final weeks, Lewis preserved his dignity and his outrage in equal, outsized measure. He loomed so large as to contain within himself the great tension between the activist’s anger and the activist’s optimism about America. He impressed upon each generation. He impressed upon the national foundation. He was, dare we say, monumental.