There have been many tributes to John Lewis. But as the the Civil Rights leader was being laid to rest Thursday in Atlanta, he got the last word.
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble,” Lewis, 80, wrote shortly before his death on July 17, 2020, from pancreatic cancer.
At Lewis’ request, his op-ed piece was published by the New York Times on the day of his funeral.
Lewis challenged activists to continue the fight against “unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror” that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., himself, and others began decades ago.
The Georgia congressman recounted a trip to Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington DC the day before his hospitalization.
“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society…I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.”
Lewis said he was spurred to action by the 1955 lynching in Mississippi of 14-year-old Emmett Till.
“I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me,” wrote Lewis, who was only a year older than the murdered teen.
“Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor,” he said, referring to Blacks who have died in, or after, confrontations with police in recent years.
Lewis remembered hearing the Martin Luther King on an old radio, preaching nonviolence. He urged Americans to continue on that path, and to vote.
King “said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. 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,” said Lewis, whose skull was fractured by Alabama State Troopers during a 1965 Civil Rights march now remembered as Bloody Sunday.
Senseless violence persists into 21st century America.
“If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain,” Lewis wrote.
A white supremacist fatally shot nine Blacks at a Bible study class at the Charleston church in 2015. In Vegas, a gunman killed 58 people and wounded 413 in 2017. McClain, a 23-year-old African American, died last year in Colorado after a violent arrest. Police had stopped him when he was walking home from a convenience store with an iced tea.
Activists against violence and injustice should join with movements around the world, Lewis said.
“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.”