Remembering a Giant of Social Justice in Representative John Lewis

My experience seeing the maverick speak at USC in 2016

I saw John Lewis when I was sixteen. It was at the Los Angeles Times’ Festival of Books in the ever-so-grand Bovard auditorium on the USC UPC campus.

Two things manifested in my mind that day. One: I wanted to go to USC. Two: John Lewis is a living legend and I was beyond lucky that I got to be within a quarter-of-a-mile of him.

It was by accident. A reporter in my Los Angeles Times’ High School Insider group had pulled out at the last minute and the director asked me if I wanted the extra ticket. Lewis was promoting his graphic novel depiction of his time in Selma at the Pettus Bridge: “March,” but shamefully, I had little idea of who he was.

I was next in line to interview him. Next in line to ask the other reporter’s question. But, we were all whisked away when the event finished and the Representative said his goodbyes. Secretly, I was glad. I was scared. My hands were shaking the entire time I was in line to ask the question. But when I arrived home, I bragged that I got to see a living legend. I bragged that if there had only been five more minutes, I would have been able to ask him my--or the other reporter’s question.

I started to do my research. After all, I ought to be able to say who this man was. This man, who if there had been five more minutes, would have seen me. Sixteen. Jewish. Living in the world that he had fought for.

He went to segregated public schools in Alabama and became inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, thus spurring a lifelong involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. NPR reported that when he graduated high school in 1958, he wrote to MLK asking him what he could do to help grow the movement. King responded with a round-trip bus ticket and a lifelong passion for activism. Lewis organized sit-ins in Nashville while a university student. He participated in the Freedom Rides. He risked his life each and every time.

From 1963 to 1966, he was the Chairman of SNCC and in that time period, he became part of the “Big Six” which included Martin Luther King Jr, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, A.Phillip Randolph and James Farmer. Lewis was the last surviving member. At only 23 years old, he helped to orchestrate the historic March on Washington. Not only that. He led more than 600 marchers over Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” It was to protest the lack of voting rights in the Southern state. The marchers were attacked by Alabama State Troopers and Lewis sustained a skull fracture. Even after his friend and idol and leader died, Lewis continued to advocate. He was appointed by President Carter to direct a federal volunteer agency. He ran for public office again and again. First winning a seat on the Atlanta City Council, then winning an election to Congress in 1986. A seat that he held up until his death.

He received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. This award came from a president who was only able to hold that office because of the work that Lewis did. Lewis himself would not have been able to hold that office had it not been for the work that he did. The marches, the voting drives, the freedom rides. Lewis spent his life working for a world that he would be able to inhabit freely and peacefully. His death is occurring in a nation--in a world--that is still reeling from the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and senseless violence happening all over. Maybe we ought to take a page out of Lewis’ book and get in some “good trouble.”

And, if I may, when I saw Lewis, I tweeted something that he said on stage and it still rings clear to this day: “we’ve made too much progress. We’re not going back.”

We still aren’t going back, Representative.