"I want to see young people in America feel the spirit of the 1960s and find a way to get in the way. To find a way to get in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble." — John Lewis
With the passing of Congressman John Lewis, we have lost one of America’s most influential and revered men. He was a giant among us, devoted to the advancement of racial justice and peace. Dignitaries, former presidents, constituents, media, and friends have publicly mourned his loss and praised his leadership on civil rights, which helped to shape our nation.
Though well deserved, somehow, words do not seem adequate when we consider the selflessness and virtue of Mr. Lewis. When we think about his life and his sacrifices, our instinct is to follow his lead, and take action. Or, as he would say, get into some “good trouble” the kind that gets us to a more equitable world. Mr. Lewis stood tall, even when standing alone. That is how I think about you, our UNICEF family, staying the course and looking for “necessary trouble” to advance children’s rights.
From the time he was a young boy in Troy, Alabama, Mr. Lewis wanted to become a pastor. He wanted to inspire and help others, and he did not want to wait until adulthood to realize this dream. At five-years-old, he began preaching sermons to the family chickens, ministering to them with baptismal and funeral ceremonies. Later, as a high school student, he was inspired by Rosa Parks to write a letter to Martin Luther King Jr., who sent him a round trip bus ticket from Nashville to Montgomery, so they could meet in person.
These are early examples of actions he took in support of his convictions - small steps that brought him closer to people, ideas, and a movement that would forever change America. After meeting Dr. King, he became a founding member and eventually, chairman, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement.
The SNCC campaigned relentlessly to organize and register young Black voters and stage countless non-violent marches, sit-ins, and boycotts. SNCC had a large role in many historic events, including the 1963 March on Washington and the Freedom Rides.
On March 7, 1965, Mr. Lewis had helped organize a voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Some 600 peaceful participants were violently attacked by police and the event became known as "Bloody Sunday." Film captured the brutality, including a badly injured Mr. Lewis who had sustained skull fractures from police nightsticks. These images shocked and galvanized the American public. As a result, the landmark Voting Rights Act was signed into law on August 6, 1965, banning racial discrimination in voting.
American civil rights pioneers have become treasured national icons but at the time, there was little glory, nor guarantee of a successful outcome. Despite this, Mr. Lewis and countless others allowed themselves to be bloodied by police and segregationists, rather than engage in their violence, even in self-defense.
Though he endured hateful rhetoric, arrests, beatings, and the murders of his peers, Mr. Lewis fervently upheld the principle of non-violence through the end of his life.
John Lewis’ life is defined not by one action, but many actions taken consistently throughout decades of service. Actions that helped bring equality, dignity, and opportunity to all. He is an inextricable part of American history and we are privileged to have walked the earth in his lifetime.
For all who stand with us for the rights of the world’s children, we hope his legacy of action is a source of inspiration. Let us follow in his footsteps by exercising our right to vote and finding “a way to get in the way” when we see injustice. As he noted, we do not always see the results in our lifetime, but we see the progress, and feel the certainty that the next generation will finish the job. Before, during, and after the storm, we carry his legacy, and those of so many others, to continue the work. Keep going!
Top Photo: In 2017, Congressman John Lewis (second from left), met with UNICEF USA staff member Fabienne Goldgaber (second from right) and UNICEF supporters on Advocacy Day in Washington D.C. © UNICEF USA