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By Bill Press, journalist and host of Talk of the Hill with Bill Press at Hill Center
For a kid from a small town in Delaware, I’ve been lucky. I’ve had some wonderful experiences, held some fun jobs, and met a lot of famous people: presidents, governors, cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, TV anchors, and movie stars. But, in all my life, there’s only one time I felt I was in the presence of true greatness: And that’s every time I was in the presence of John Lewis.
Actually, I was blessed to meet Congressman Lewis on several occasions, and I interviewed him as part of my speaker series at Washington’s Hill Center. But the most memorable experience by far was 15 years ago, March 2005, when I was invited to join a Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama.
As I recall, our group included some 25-30 Members, of both parties. Every stop marked an important milestone in the history of the Civil Rights movement. And our guide for the entire three days was civil rights legend John Lewis himself, who not only walked us through highlights of the civil rights movement, but introduced us to several of its surviving heroes and, as he reminded us, its “sheroes.”
We started out at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, just before Sunday services on September 15, 1963, a bomb planted by the KKK exploded, killing four little girls putting on their choir robes. On to Montgomery the next day, where we toured the Rosa Parks Museum and visited the historic First Baptist Church, headquarters of the Montgomery bus boycott under Pastor Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King. And then the most powerful moments of the trip, Sunday services at Selma’s historic Brown Chapel, followed by a march of 10,000 people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 40th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” led by John Lewis himself.
What struck me most about Lewis was how self-effacing he was, how humble, and how gentle. Unlike most politicians I’ve been around, he wasn’t always preening for the camera. And, as Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell noted as Lewis lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, then and now, “he treated everyone with respect and love.” Republican or Democrat, he addressed all his colleagues in Congress as “My Brother” or “My Sister.”
Throughout his career, John Lewis lived and preached one central theme: Change will not happen unless we make it happen. You can’t just sit back and wait for government, or any one political party, to deliver, Lewis stressed. You have to get off your butt, organize, mobilize, and fight to help bring about change. That’s the message he delivered at the very beginning of his public life, as the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in August 1963: “Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village, and every hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes.”
That’s the same message Lewis delivered to the graduates of Emory University in 2014, powerful words replayed this week in the Rotunda as part of his memorial service. His parents and grandparents, he told students, as always admonished him “Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”
Then, said Lewis, he met Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. “And these two individuals inspired me to get in the way, to get in trouble. So I come here to say to you this morning…you must find a way to get in the way. You must find a way to get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
And how fitting. It’s the same message Lewis carried to his last public appearance, just a month before he died, at Black Lives Matter Plaza in downtown Washington, where young people had again taken to the streets to protest systemic racism in police departments. “It was very moving,” Lewis told reporters, “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,’ or to get in the way.”
In his honor, there’s a move to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge the John Lewis Bridge. They should. Many members of Congress want to restore the Voting Rights Act and rename it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. They should. But the best way any of us can honor John Lewis is to do what he wanted us to do: get mad, get up, get out, and stir up as much good trouble as we can.
Column courtesy of the Tribune Content Agency and Bill Press
Photo courtesy of The Faith & Politics Institute
About Talk of the Hill with Bill Press:
Since 2012, Bill Press has proudly hosted Hill Center’s Talk of the Hill series, in which he sits down for one-on-one, thought-provoking conversations with newsmakers. Hill Center is honored by his contribution to our programming. Previous guests include: Sen. Bernie Sanders, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayer, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, Rep. John Lewis, Sen. Mary Landrieu, Rep. Barbara Lee, Mark Leibovich, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Peter Baker, Sister Simone Campbell, Norman Ornstein, Sen. Chris Dodd, Charlie Cook, Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen, Brian Lamb, Seymour Hersh, Gene Robinson, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Robert Siegel, Alice Waters, Rep. Jackie Speier, Glenn Thrush, and Rep. Maxine Waters.