Good Trouble: What John Lewis' life and legacy means for young leaders

Civil Rights


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For myself, and for many, many members of the Kennedy family, John Lewis was a continual and steady presence in our lives. He was a father figure to us, he shared a special bond with my mother, Ethel, and he was a guiding force in helping Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights become the organization it is today.

That’s exactly why we’re renaming our program for college-aged human rights defenders across the country for him, as the John Lewis Young Leaders Program. That program, which has existed since 2017, will formally be rebranded late this month in Los Angeles, convening some of the best and brightest young people around the country. It is designed, in so many ways, to encapsulate the things he so valued. Courage. Truth. Community.

If there is a particular day that stands out in my mind which encapsulates exactly what he meant to us and to the world, it is from one spring 15 years ago, during the annual Faith and Politics Pilgrimage to Selma, the march John led to commemorate Bloody Sunday.

That day, John took a seat not in the buses that held powerful members of Congress and major donors. Instead, he chose the one that held my mom, my 9- and 11-year-old daughters, a bunch of siblings and cousins, and dozens of my nieces and nephews—mostly young teens—40 Kennedys and John Lewis.

As we began our trip, he stood behind the driver, and recalled his mother’s warning not to get into trouble. But civil rights work, he told us, was different. It was “good trouble.”

He told us about being a Freedom Rider, the group of 13 women and men, black and white, who confronted Jim Crow and the Interstate Commerce clause, riding Greyhound buses across the south in 1961. When they reached Montgomery, the police escort that Daddy had negotiated with the governor abandoned the riders, and an enraged mob of Klansmen and other white supremacists, attacked the riders with baseball bats and table legs. John told us that he made his way to Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church. He said a few hundred parishioners huddled themselves in the pews and sang “We shall overcome.” Meanwhile the mob, now 5,000 strong, shouted racial epithets, and hurled bricks and Molotov Cocktails through the sanctuary’s shattered stained glass. He said Dr. King, Reverend Abernathy and John called Daddy from the Church basement to bring in the National guard to disperse the mob. He said “Kerry, if not for your father I might not be alive today.”

When I was a child, Daddy told us that there was no group he admired more than the Freedom Riders. John’s courage was integral to my father’s commitment to civil rights, giving a clear voice to the struggle to end racial segregation and discrimination in the United States.

When Daddy ran for president, he asked John to help organize the Black community in Indiana. Working with local organizers, John arranged Daddy’s largest Black rally in the state, in Indianapolis, on April 4, 1968.

When Daddy’s campaign plane landed in Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar called and begged him not to go to John’s rally. Daddy asked John for his advice. John said “come.” Daddy went. Standing side by side with John that night, Daddy delivered the shocking news of Reverend King’s death to the crowd.

He said: “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the