By Ciera Graham / Herald columnist
As the nation deals with racial upheaval and social unrest in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other countless Black men and women, Black Lives Matter protests continue to reign locally and nationally.
What we have seen during 2020 is a moral awakening of America and fervent reckoning with our American Creed. As Americans take pride in celebrating the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, many of America’s most marginalized populations are questioning the validity of this promise. Now more than ever, we need socially and politically conscious leadership that challenges the status quo and systemic injustices. We have seen historical examples of Black civil rights leaders engaging in civil disobedience, risking their lives, and stressing moral reform. Black leadership is resolute, unwavering, and resilient. Black leadership challenges the status quo. Black leadership is John Lewis.
In a world where many of us are experiencing deep skepticism about our American political system, Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, was our beacon of hope for social change. Often called the “one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced” and “the conscience of the U.S. Congress,” Lewis is nothing short of an American Hero.
Lewis witnessed the deep roots of systemic injustice from childhood: He was the son of sharecroppers, born in Alabama in the 1940s. He attended segregated public schools as a young boy and was thrust into a life of confronting white supremacy, and American ideals of freedom and democracy. From organizing freedom rides to sit-ins, and to being almost beaten to death by angry white mobs while challenging the institution of Jim Crow segregation.
Like many civil rights leaders, Lewis knew that the cost of justice and the fight for human life could come with the penalty of losing one’s own life. Nonetheless, he persevered. Lewis went on to become the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and an architect and youngest speaker at the historic March on Washington.
According to his own count, Lewis was arrested more than 40 times during his days of civil rights activism. In a world that continues to deny humanity and dignity to Black people, Lewis was a distinct contradiction to this denial. He fought vigorously for Black political mobilization, galvanized his communities with messages of hope and community uplift; and he defied the boundaries of Black male political engagement. He became a staunch advocate for voting rights, immigration form and a champion of LGTBQ rights.
In 2003, he said “I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation.” Among the bills he supported were the Equality Act which prohibited discrimination based on sex or gender, and he sponsored the Respect for Marriage Act, which aimed to legalize same sex marriage. Lewis’ stance on LGTBQ rights was quite uncommon given that he was also an ordained minister at a Baptist Church.
Lewis understood that America’s progressiveness was indicative of all its members being able to take part in its democracy.
When I heard the news that John Lewis had died on July 17 at the age of 80, I felt somber, but reflective of America’s progress.
To see the fruits of the legacy of John Lewis, look no further than in our very own county. state Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, of the 44th Legislative District, Says Lewis is his hero, and he inspires him every day to hold his head high and keep walking in his purpose.
“I sometimes wonder how did Lewis have the courage to do what he did every day, and when I met him in 2018, he told me with great resolve to never let anyone break your spirit,” Lovick said.
Like Lovick, we are also witnessing the power and influence of Generation Z in our county. Youths across Snohomish County are organizing protests and rallies in their communities and writing petitions in the name of Black Lives Matter; I am touched by their desire to not simply accept America’s imperfections. They make me believe in the future morality, and dignity of America.
I would be remiss if I also did not share how conflicted I feel about the progress of America.
John Lewis was an ardent supporter of the Voting Rights Act. This act is a defining characteristic of our American society; the participation of all people in our American democracy. This defining characteristic has been challenged by several members of the Republican Party. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, D-Ky., has blatantly refused to hold hearings or move the Voting Rights Advancement Acta, already passed by the U.S. House, toward a Senate vote. His defiance and opposition is negligent and disheartening, a complete slander to the life and legacy of John Lewis, and the American people. McConnell’s condolences to John Lewis were nothing more than an empty void and political posturing.
We must continue to be outraged and continue to challenge those who serve as impediments to American progress.
As many of us strive to live a life of no regrets, and leave a legacy for others to follow, let us remain committed to John Lewis’ legacy of engaging in the undying and the laborious struggle for human rights. He urged us all to get in “good trouble” After his arrest for trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. — a bridge that bears the name of a Ku Klux Klan leader — he urged his followers to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
We are forever thankful for his legacy, and forever indebted to his good work.
Follow Herald columnist Ciera Graham on Twitter @CieraGrahamPhD.