John Lewis Never Stopped Getting In ‘Good Trouble'
Rep. John Lewis is dead. It hardly seems fair, as the demons he battled throughout his life still endure. The cops who beat him bloody in Selma aren't the same ones who bludgeon protesters today, but they have the same Nuremberg excuses: "We're just following orders." Lewis defied the unjust laws of an unjust society, and that will always put you on the opposite end of a police baton, rubber bullets, or tear gas.
Lewis lived to see the uprising against police violence and systemic racism after George Floyd's vicious murder. He couldn't join the protests because of the pancreatic cancer that would eventually take his life, but he appreciated the bravery and, dare we say, true patriotism of protesters. Unlike his mentor, Martin Luther King, he was not dead yet, so conservatives couldn't claim he'd somehow oppose Black Lives Matter. Conservatives tend to believe the most appropriate protests against racism are those that occur in a past distant enough for them to accept no accountability. (Protests against public health measures, however, are never out of fashion.)
From The New York Times:
"It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets — to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call 'good trouble,'" Mr. Lewis told "CBS This Morning" in June.
"This feels and looks so different," he said of the Black Lives Matter movement, which drove the anti-racism demonstrations. "It is so much more massive and all inclusive." He added, "There will be no turning back."
During a 2018 interview with The Atlantic, Lewis, the son of sharecroppers who grew up in Alabama during the height of Jim Crow, defined the revolutionary thinking behind his rallying cry of “good trouble."
I saw the signs that said white men, colored men; white women, colored women; white waiting, colored waiting. And I would ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents why. They would say, "That's the way it is. Don't go getting in trouble."
But in 1955, at 15 years old, I heard of Dr. King, and I heard of Rosa Parks. They inspired me to get in trouble.
This is what the police and their defenders say today: Don't get in trouble, and we won't hurt you. Accept our continued assaults on your communities, the murders of Black women sleeping in their beds and young Black men who play the violin to cats. You're never permitted to cry “Enough!" no matter how peacefully. You'll have your skull fractured like Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders beaten unconscious by white mobs.
Lewis was arrested 45 times for his protests against segregation, which was the law of the land and the police make no distinction against just and unjust laws. They are a weapon of the state, and perhaps it's unfair to judge a weapon and not the one who wields it. But we've seen that the police are capable of some degree of independent thought and moral choice. They walk off the job if they can't shoot suspects in the back but there're no significant record of the police refusing to enforce white supremacy. After a while, you might have to accept that most people join an organization that grew from slave patrols for a reason. When you watch the footage of police attacking protesters 1961, the contempt shown for anyone resisting the racial hierarchy is not dramatically different from what we've seen in 2020.
When Lewis spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, he called out police brutality and those words resonate today.
It is true that we support the administration's civil rights bill. We support it with great reservations, however. Unless Title III is put in this bill, there is nothing to protect the young children and old women who must face police dogs and fire hoses in the South while they engage in peaceful demonstrations. In its present form, this bill will not protect the citizens of Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear of a police state. It will not protect the hundreds and thousands of people that have been arrested on trumped charges. What about the three young men, SNCC field secretaries in Americus, Georgia, who face the death penalty for engaging in peaceful protest?
Just 23 years later, Lewis was elected to House of Representatives and served Georgia's fifth district with distinction. He was called the “conscience of Congress," which is faint praise but nonetheless true. One of his final acts of conscience was voting to impeach Donald Trump's sorry ass in December.
When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, "What did you do? What did you say?'" For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.
“Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will com… https://t.co/MI8LTLZ7Wh— Acyn Torabi (@Acyn Torabi) 1595046124.0
Before Lewis's death, there were already calls to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Lewis and other civil rights activists encountered a wall of state troopers waiting for them. Edmund Winston Pettus was a Confederate general and a grand dragon in the Alabama Klu Klux Klan. He was human garbage, and while a majority of white Americans made someone of similar moral character president, we should have higher standards for our bridges.
Lewis and his fellow heroes defied that wall. They crossed the bridge and were brutally attacked. Even women and children were beaten unconscious. White moderates and liberals have believed that today's police -- their friends and relatives -- are different. They would throw down their nightsticks and turn in their badges before attacking people peacefully demanding their rights as citizens. The past few weeks have proven how wrong, how hopelessly naive they were. Black people, however, have always known the truth.
A thug with a badge cracked John Lewis's skull with a billy club and hit him again when he refused to stay down. That is the history of America. Black people are showing at protests in cities across America that we won't stay down. Like John Lewis, we'll try to get back up as long as there's breath in our body. We'll never stop getting in “good trouble."
U.S. Rep. John Lewis' Firsthand Account of Surviving "Bloody Sunday" | Oprah's Master Class | OWN www.youtube.com
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."