John Lewis was the conscience of Congress, a civil rights icon, someone who reminded again and again and again what it means to be both compassionate and just. He was a moral compass for the nation and one of the last remaining unifying forces in American politics today.
He was gentle. He spoke slowly. He implored us to get into good trouble. He cared.
In 2012, along with my mother, Ethel Kennedy, and a busload of siblings, nieces and nephews, I boarded a bus from Montgomery, Alabama bound for Selma. Lewis stood at the front of the bus, microphone in hand, and told us his story.
The son of sharecroppers, he grew up yearning to be a preacher. As a child he raised chickens and, along with food and water, he gave them sermons. His mother told him not to get into trouble. He said his work on civil rights was “good trouble.”
We had started the day at First Baptist Church where the Freedom Riders sought sanctuary after their mauling at the Montgomery Bus station in May 1961. The two small interracial groups riding commercial interstate buses across the South were fighting the widespread violation of the Supreme Court ruling which banned segregated seating, restrooms and restaurants.
Consistent with Gandhi’s teachings, the Freedom Riders informed officials, including the FBI, of their intentions and whereabouts throughout the trip. In Alabama, the FBI informed state troopers and local police, who, in turn, called in the Ku Klux Klan. When the buses reached Montgomery, a rabble of 2,300 men, women and children, armed with chains and ax handles were lying in wait.
Those Freedom Riders who could still walk sought sanctuary at First Baptist Church, home of the magnificent Reverend Ralph Abernathy. That afternoon, hundreds of Black men, women and children crowded into the Sanctuary, singing “We Shall Overcome.” At nightfall, the white supremacists hurled bricks at the stained glass windows, tossed Molotov cocktails through the broken glass, and overran the federal marshals.
Still, the congregation sang.
Lewis told us that in the basement, he, King and Abernathy spoke to my father on the phone. President John F. Kennedy, my Uncle Jack, threatened the Governor that he would send in federal troops.
Finally, at the direction of Daddy and Uncle Jack, the National Guard arrived and dispersed the white supremacist crowd.
Lewis said, “Without Bobby, I’m not sure I would be here today.”
Lewis was the youngest of the handful of civil rights leaders who met with Uncle Jack at the White House and informed him that they intended to march on Washington.
During a campaign to desegregate Cambridge, Maryland in the summer of 1963, after police arrested and townspeople beat high school and college student demonstrators, Daddy met with the students, asking questions about their experiences and their vantage points. John was 22 years old. John told us Daddy said “the young people, the students, have educated me. John, you have educated me.”
When my father ran for President in 1968, he asked Lewis to help organize the Black community in Indiana. Working with local organizers, Lewis arranged Daddy’s largest Black rally in the state, on April 4, 1968. On the way to Indianapolis, my father learned Martin Luther King had been murdered. In large part due to the many years of working with Lewis, my father’s admiration of his courage and commitment, and the trust they shared, Daddy ignored Mayor Richard Lugar’s plea to cancel the event - and instead he delivered one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. Afterwards, Lewis said they returned to the local hotel, and just cried.
The next day, at Daddy’s request, John went to Memphis to help arrange for King’s body to be returned to Atlanta. Then, Lewis arranged for Daddy to meet with Coretta Scott King the night before King’s funeral.
A few weeks later, Lewis travelled to California. There, he was in charge of organizing the Black vote, while Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta organized the Latinx. Sometimes Chavez and Lewis would canvass together. Imagine opening your door to find Cesar Chavez and John Lewis asking you to give a presidential candidate your vote.
Lewis was at the Ambassador Hotel waiting upstairs to meet Daddy after his victory speech. John said he cried all the way home.
After RFK Human Rights was founded, Lewis sat on the board until his death.
He was a critical voice in the designing of our programs, an inspiration for our Speak Truth to Power lesson plans for students, and a recipient of our Ripple of Hope award.
My last long conversation with Lewis came as I was writing Ripples of Hope: Robert F. Kennedy in 2018. It was an emotional conversation I have recalled many times since word came of his death following a brave 7-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
“I truly believe something died in all of us,” he said of my father’s death. “I know something died in me. ...that’s why you have to keep going, moving on, and trying to inspire more young people to stand up, to get up.”
That’s what Lewis kept doing, every day, using his time on this earth to advance the causes of civil rights and social justice. He was unafraid to speak truth to power, be it by speaking frankly of the still-systemic racism pervasive in our country, by criticizing the Iraq War, of decisions of the current presidential administration, or by staging a firearm safety legislative sit-in in Congress.
In Selma, when I asked Lewis how he felt walking over the bridge four and half decades later, he said, “Grateful.” Looking back, I am grateful, too. Grateful for the moral courage of John Lewis and the civil rights defenders who finally made our country a true democracy. One person, one vote. Grateful for the changes that have taken place since 1963, and for those who work to dismantle the continuing institutions of anti-Black violence in our land. Inspired by the women and men in our country and around the world who have devoted their lives and sometimes paid the ultimate price, for human rights. And grateful for all those who listen to the Lewis inside us all, imploring, “get into trouble— good trouble.”