On July 17th, we lost an American hero.
John Lewis was born on February 21, 1940 as the son of poor sharecroppers in Alabama, deep in the heart of segregationist America. Growing up, he experienced both racism and segregation first hand, watching theater plays from balconies while white children watched from the lower level. He was rejected from getting a library card in Troy, Alabama when the librarian told him that the library was reserved for whites only. No doubt there were many more anecdotal stories of racism and impossible roadblocks that Congressman Lewis faced.
Oftentimes, in moments of immense distress, the individual facing these challenges have two reactions. They can let themselves be overwhelmed by the struggle, accept the situation and be crushed by the magnitude. Or they can rise above it, search deep inside for an indomitable inner strength and use the pain and anguish to fuel their rise.
John Lewis was undoubtedly the latter. Instead of succumbing to the dark hatred of racism and segregation, he rose above it and used his pain and frustration to drive for a better world. He stood by other towering figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, following their example to fight for change through nonviolent protests. Driven to be more than just a bystander, he struggled in the fight for racial equity and equality, shedding blood, sweat and tears for that noble cause.
He was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, risking their lives to send a message of integration to the rest of the country. He was one the “Big Six” who organized the march on Washington and led a march across the Selma Bridge on the infamous Bloody Sunday, nearly losing his life in the process. Most importantly, he was a key leader in the fight to pass the Voting Rights Act, which passed 55 years ago on August 6, 1965.
During his tenure as a member of Congress, John Lewis didn’t stop fighting the good fight. He continued to wage a campaign against injustice and racial inequality; he fought for human rights and racial reconciliation, supported gay rights and a national health insurance. He also helped lead the charge against climate change.
For John Lewis, there was a need to get involved, “To find a way to get in trouble. Good, trouble, necessary trouble.” But what he hoped for was that others would see his example and also find themselves looking for that same trouble.
In this election year, we’re faced with crossroads for the future of this country. It’s a confusing, difficult and frustrating year filled with chaos and struggle. But while John Lewis’s fight has ended, the dream that he pursued must still be chased. His battles are over but ours is still ongoing. And because we stand on the shoulders of giants like John Lewis, we can reach a little further and carry that dream a little farther.