My childhood views on civil rights were framed by growing up in north Mississippi in the 1960s. My earliest memories of civil rights involve the Ole Miss race riots in 1962, Medgar Evers’ murder in 1962 and the murders of three civil rights activists during the Freedom Summer of 1964. As I matured, my views matured, as I read more about both sides of the issues. However, I am ashamed that I knew so little about John Lewis until he died in July.
Mr. Lewis experienced such a range in life. He was one of ten children born to sharecroppers in Pike County, Alabama. Despite being denied admission to Troy State, he received a college degree in Tennessee and became a minister. Mr. Lewis was in the center of the storm that was the 1960s civil rights movement. In 1961, he was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders that rode from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. At 23, he was elected chairman of the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was one of the “Big Six” that organized the 1963 SNCC March on Washington. He was a speaker at the event and introduced Dr. Martin Luther King when he made his “I Have a Dream Speech.” Mr. Lewis was beaten and badly injured in 1965 as he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday on the Freedom Walk from Selma to Montgomery. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 33 years. Three former Presidents spoke at his funeral.
Despite all his experiences with violence inflicted upon him, he was a calming voice in Congress. Like his mentor Dr. King, he advocated for a peaceful and non-violent movement, although he did, at times, advocate for “good trouble, helpful trouble.”
He was noted for referencing his civil rights history in Congress. He leaves behind a number of very interesting quotes and/or life value statements. One very applicable for today is, “We may not have chosen the time, but the time has chosen us.”
The quote is very telling. It is wiser and has more meaning than the initial impression. We don’t choose our parents. We don’t choose our time or place of birth. We don’t choose our race or nationality. We don’t choose our heritage or our descent. And, we don’t choose our issues.
These are very strange times. The world and our lives are upside down. We did not choose to have the COVID-19 pandemic. We did not choose the severe economic impact resulting from the COVID pandemic. We did not choose the fall-out and the civil unrest from George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. We did not choose the riots in our cities nor the violent demonstrations. Mr. Lewis was right, time has chosen us in this moment.
Mr. Lewis would not have approved of the violence or the hate. He said, “Never give up. Never give in. Never become hostile… Hate is too big a burden to bear.” Wouldn’t it be refreshing if our national leaders on both sides of the aisle and those who want to be national leaders would drop the hate, drop the agendas, stop the bickering, provide mature leadership, and help the country and its people resolve these issues?
Mr. Lewis also said, “Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime or maybe lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.” Our struggles won’t be resolved quickly. If national leaders don’t address the solutions, we must be prepared to come together as smaller communities and navigate the numerous crises that have found us. It may be a long struggle, and we must be prepared to do our part.
I will close with a longer quote from an essay Mr. Lewis wrote to be read after his death. It is a road map, a way forward, a guiding light:
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring. When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
John Lewis was truly a remarkable man – a man with love and forgiveness in his heart, not vengeance or hate. Time chose John Lewis. He was up to the task. Time has also chosen us. Are we up for the task?
I wish us all the best and hope you have a good month.