“Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation” by John Lewis (New York Times, 7/30/20)
“Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.” –John Lewis
Born in 1940 in rural Alabama, John Robert Lewis – one of the “big six” leaders of the Civil Rights movement – served Georgia’s 5th congressional district since 1987. Lewis was a Freedom Rider, organized sit-ins, and in 1965 led the first Selma march over Edmund Pettus Bridge on what became known as Bloody Sunday. An advocate of nonviolence, he was beaten viciously and jailed many times. Lewis was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer late last year, following a routine check-up. His final public appearance was in June, at Washington D.C.’s brand-new Black Lives Matter Plaza on 16th Street NW near the White House, which he visited because he simply wanted to see it for himself. Lewis was admitted to the hospital the next day and died on July 17th.
When President Barack Obama eulogized Congressman Lewis on Thursday, he described Lewis as “an American whose faith was tested again and again to produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance.” Congressman Lewis’s perseverance was so unbreakable that he managed to address the American people from his casket, in what amounts to a love letter to us all, published by the New York Times on the day of his own funeral.
What Congressman Lewis Calls Us To Do
In his Op Ed piece, what Lewis urges each of us to do is be an accountable leader of our own life. He encourages us to “answer the highest calling of your heart by standing up for what you truly believe”:
Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.
He further exhorts us to learn and understand the history, context and constructs that have made the world work the way it now does, and which – therefore – point to solutions for our most intractable problems. He speaks with profound wisdom to the transformative potential of this time. Ultimately, Lewis asks us to “[c]ontinue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”
- Consider meditating, free-writing, dreaming, making art about, or otherwise contemplating the grace of Lewis’s parting words:
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.
Which words move you the most? For you, what does it mean to “walk with the wind”? What does the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love guide you to do now?
- A concept well-lived by Lewis was “love in action,” which was the subject of this beautiful “On Being” interview of Lewis by Krista Tippett. I recommend it for inspiration and refreshment; each time I listen to it I notice something new and important about leadership, purpose and service.
- Note to my readers: Thank you for all of the excellent leadership you are persisting to offer in the pandemic, in the anti-racism movement, and in your organizations, communities and families. In homage to John Lewis, here is my heartfelt leadership wish for you: Love is good trouble. May you get into plenty of it.