“When you see something that is not right, when you see something that is not fair, that is not just, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something. You cannot be quiet.”
That, my friends, is advice that could make this world a better place for us all.
Only a handful of true legends come along in any given lifetime. Last week saw the passing of one of them, civil rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis. This incredible man, author of the above quote, lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on July 17.
Many people talk the talk, far fewer actually walk the walk. Very, very few walk the walk that John Lewis tread.
Perhaps nothing illustrates his faith, conviction and courage more than Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965. Lewis led approximately 600 peaceful protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. A line of Alabama state troopers with batons blocked the way. When the marchers failed to disperse the troopers attacked.
Many marchers were injured, among them Lewis. A now famous black and white photograph shows Lewis trying to fend off a blow from a trooper’s baton, the same baton that fractured his skull and gave him a scar on his forehead that he carried the rest of his life. “I was the first one to, to catch the blow,” he recalled.
In later years Lewis told an interviewer he thought he would die on that bridge.
Fortunately for our nation he didn’t die that day. Rather he continued his efforts to gain equality for all Americans.
Lewis began his civil rights activism as a college student in Nashville, Tennessee. He was among young people who staged sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, taking seats in the white sections and refusing to leave. For that they were beaten, harassed and arrested. He recalled how crowds would pour chocolate and hot coffee in their hair to humiliate them, beyond the kicks and blows they endured.
In the end, though, they won – Nashville’s lunch counters were desegregated.
Lewis was involved with Dr. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent protests, and was the last of the “Big Six” civil rights movement leaders to pass. At age 23 Lewis was the youngest activist to speak during the famous march on Washington in 1963.
In an interview following Lewis’ death, fellow King confidante and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young recalled how King told his followers to be prepared to die for their convictions. To drive that point home, Young said, King would pretend to preach their funerals, but in a humorous way to help them deal with the reality.
As one of the original Freedom Riders who rode buses across the South Lewis indeed faced the possibility of death for standing up for his rights. Lewis said he was arrested 40 times in all before he was elected as a Georgia representative to U.S. Congress. As a Congressman, he said, he was arrested five more times. In his final days Lewis remained active in the cause, calling on current protestors to halt the destructive rioting and adhere to non-violent protests that proved so successful in the past.
Unfortunately not everyone understands or appreciates what Lewis has achieved. On Jan. 14, 2017, our then president-elect responded to criticism from Lewis by tweeting that the Congressman was “All talk, talk, talk - no action or results." I thought long and hard about whether to mention this tweet, and decided it is the right thing to do – not to further divide us, but to highlight our continuing division while hoping an awareness may bring us closer together.
Simply put, I saw something that is not right, is not just and is not fair, so I’m saying something,
Lewis summed up his own life in words far more powerful than anything I can add. “Every generation leaves behind a legacy,” he said. “What that legacy will be is determined by the people of that generation.
“What legacy do you want to leave behind?”
Don Allison is an author, historian and retired editor of The Bryan Times. He can be reached at www.fadedbanner.com.