The legacy of John Lewis — the tireless civil rights leader and longtime representative for Georgia's 5th congressional district, who died Friday after a battle with pancreatic cancer — won't die with him, at least not if the next generation of activists and change-makers has anything to say about it. We speak to some of them about Lewis' mantra of causing "good trouble," and what that means to them.
Kwame Rose, social activist, artist and organizer in Baltimore. (@kwamerose)
Dawn Porter, award-winning documentary filmmaker. Founder of Trilogy Films, a production company. Director of "John Lewis: Good Trouble," a documentary on the civil rights leader's life of activism. (@dawnporterm)
On how John Lewis’ constituents and neighbors in Atlanta are mourning his death
Rose Scott: “As I would expect from Atlantans, it's remarkable. It's emotional. It's a celebration. It's remembering. I'll tell you what's what. For me, it's been on social media and seeing all the pictures people have with Congressman John Lewis. I have a picture with him; it’s like everybody in Atlanta has a picture with Congressman John Lewis, and I think that speaks to the type of person that he was, politician aside. I have a friend who posted a picture of him that he was coming out of a grocery store, you know, a basket full of groceries. And she said, you know, we spoke for 30 minutes. Those are the stories that I'm hearing — whether you were a notable or someone who just lived round the corner from him in his neighborhood, you felt like you knew him. Everyone has a John Lewis story like they were friends for many, many years. And I think that that is something to be celebrated. I think that Atlantans are really showing folks who didn’t know or even folks who wanted to, you know, judge whether or not, was this man really like this? You just check in with folks in Atlanta right now, and you'll see.”
"Whether you were a notable or someone who just lived round the corner from him in his neighborhood, you felt like you knew him."Rose Scott, Host, closer look with rose scott on wabe
On the civil rights legend’s lifelong “moral leadership”
Rose Scott: “I just finished a conversation with Dr. Robert Franklin over at Emory University, who's written many books on moral leadership. And I always ask him to remind our listeners, you know, what are those characteristics? What are those attributes when we talk about moral leadership? And I'm gonna do him justice here by hopefully getting it right. But he talks about the big four, which is: Integrity, courage, imagination and wisdom. And I think that sums up perfectly Congressman John Lewis, the moral leadership that he displayed as a 23 year old, 24 year old, the same that he had when he was 80, to the same that he had when he led a sit in in Congress, it's the same that he had when he is speaking to whether it's a group of Morehouse or Spelman students, or speaking to someone at the grocery store. The same message, the same message is always embedded with integrity, with courage, imagination and wisdom. Always the same.”
On Rep. Lewis’ deeply felt humanity
Dawn Porter: “Sometimes when you meet people that you admire so much, it's hard to think of them as people, as individuals, as human beings. And so when you spend time with Congressman Lewis, you see the ferocious kind of, you know, powerful speaker that is just one part of his personality. And the rest is, you know, he... it's hard to get used to saying was. But he's funny and warm and just really enjoys people and sharing his kindness, and it’s expressed in so many small ways. I think the public knows about the large ways: His marches, his legislation. But the small ways are just as important: How he greets people, that he remembers to ask about your family, about your children. Those small things are important, too.”
"I think the public knows about the large ways: His marches, his legislation. But the small ways are just as important: How he greets people, that he remembers to ask about your family, about your children. Those small things are important, too."Dawn Porter, Filmmaker, John Lewis: Good Trouble
On Lewis’ influence on young activists in Atlanta
Rose Scott: “For the younger activists... there's an admiration there. There's also a disconnect because for some of them, obviously, they weren't alive and they may be two generations removed from the works of John Lewis to so many of the civil rights movement. But there was an admiration in that there was this notion of, yes, we can borrow a template, we can borrow a blueprint. Now, there were some times where some of the young activists would say, well, you know, their time is gone; now it is up to us, and we're going to do things a little differently. But I think there is a difference in terms of when you want to be just when you want to disrupt. There's probably nothing wrong with disruption. Destruction is something else. And I think that is probably where for some people, trying to make this distinction between ‘good trouble’ and then when trouble goes down a different road as it is related, some turning violent. But at the end of the day, what I will tell you is I know there was a lot of respect and admiration for Congressman John Lewis from a lot of young activists here. I have spoken to them. And while they may have some different methods, they understand the importance of the work that he did and what he was trying to relay to them in terms of ‘good trouble.’”
On John Lewis as a “bridge” between one generation of activists and another
Kwame Rose: “The older I get, the more I realized that we would not be here without the contributions of those before us. And we look at the life and the legacy of John Lewis, this is an individual who dedicated their entire adult life to serving others, to fighting for better change. I look at John Lewis being a bridge. Without him and what he did over the past 50 years plus of his life, we would not be here in this moment today. And even as you mentioned in your interview with him calling out younger generations in 2013, he knew that a movement of this magnitude would have sparked. So the way I could sum it up is that John Lewis put ‘I Can’ in American, and he showed that not only can we raise hell in the streets and protest, but we could raise moral and ethical questions in Congress and push for legislation. Our country lost a hero. Our country lost a giant.”
"I look at John Lewis being a bridge. Without him and what he did over the past 50 years plus of his life, we would not be here in this moment today."Kwame Rose, social activist, artist and organizer
On Lewis’ “perpetual optimism” in the face of setbacks and challenges
Andrew Aydin: “I remember being in the office and [the Supreme Court decision inShelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965] hadn't hit the television yet. And he was in his office watching it. And I got the email alert that the Shelby decision had come down. And he said, is it here. And I just said, yeah, and I shook my head and he put his head down a little bit and he said, OK, well, we've got to get to work. And that was John Lewis. There was no setback that he couldn't overcome. There was no challenge that he was afraid of. And I think when the Shelby decision came down, as he said, it stuck a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act. And to him, he looked at it in the context of the long arc. I mean, the Klan actually marched in their largest march in Georgia in more than 40 years, four or five days after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. That was their reaction. So he'd been fighting back against the forces trying to weaken or eliminate the protections of the Voting Rights Act since the very first day after its passage. And this was just another challenge to him. It was brutal. It was painful for him to see. But I think in his mind, it was just another fight that he was going to give his whole self to.”
"There was no setback that he couldn't overcome. There was no challenge that he was afraid of."Andrew Ayden, former congressional aide to John Lewis
From The Reading List
The New York Times: "‘They Didn’t Just Love Him. They Knew Him.’ Young Atlanta Activists Mourn John Lewis." — "By the time the Rev. James Woodall came to know John Lewis, Mr. Lewis was already a longtime congressman and a towering figure in the civil rights movement, one whose legacy loomed large over Atlanta. At 26, Mr. Woodall is one of the youngest leaders in the N.A.A.C.P., serving as the president for the organization in Georgia. Despite the more than half a century that separated them, Mr. Woodall said he identified with Mr. Lewis as an inspirational leader who at a very young age worked to change the world."
USA Today: "'Work is still unfinished': Younger civil rights activists vow to continue work of Rep. John Lewis" — "As the nation mourns the loss of Rep. John Lewis — one of the icons of the civil rights movement — the younger generations he helped groom and inspire pledge to carry out his legacy. Civil rights leaders, young and old, praised Lewis Saturday for his unwavering fight for social justice but acknowledged his work— and theirs — is far from finished."
The Washington Post: "John Lewis leaves behind a powerful legacy of social justice" — "On July 17, congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis died at 80, on the same day as 95-year-old stalwart C.T. Vivian, Martin Luther King’s favorite preacher. Both leave behind a legacy of social justice activism that played a pivotal role in some of the most resounding victories of the civil rights movement: America’s Second Reconstruction."
This article was originally published on July 20, 2020.
This program aired on July 20, 2020.