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Issues of race and justice demanded our attention after the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis. Protesters filled downtown streets in cities from Seattle to Bangor. Some, largely symbolic, changes came quickly. Statues of Confederate leaders have been removed from state capitols and downtown plazas. The U.S. military has effectively banned Confederate flags on its properties and bases named after Confederate leaders may be renamed. The Washington, D.C., football team is finally dropping its offensive name.
It is tempting to think that we are making a lot of progress. While all these steps are overdue and welcome, there are surface changes. We can’t be lulled into thinking that removing statues and changing names somehow undoes decades — even centuries, in some cases — of policies and practices that have left far too many people of color out of the American dream.
The life and legacy of Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who died Friday, reminds us that working for systemic change is a long process and that progress is not always linear. Despite this, his biggest message was not to give up.
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year,” Lewis said in a June 2018 tweet. “It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Lewis, the youngest leader of the 1963 March on Washington, was not afraid to make some noise. The civil rights leader was arrested 40 times by his count. He was brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers on March 7, 1965, as he and 600 others marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in support of voting rights. Images of the violence, dubbed Bloody Sunday, were said to have prompted President Lyndon Johnson’s action on the Voting Rights Act, which he presented to Congress eight days after the march in Selma.
Lewis called the demonstrations and calls for change in the wake of Floyd’s killing “good trouble.”
“This feels and looks so different,” he told “CBS This Morning” in early June. “It is so much more massive and all inclusive. … there will be no turning back.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree served with Lewis for 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. She joined him in 2014 and 2019 for his annual recreation of march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which many are already suggesting should be renamed for Lewis.
“He truly possessed all of the characteristics that were ascribed to him – he was insightful, vigilant, articulate, kind and had a deep understanding of the difference between right and wrong and never held back from fighting for the things that matter,” Pingree said in a statement. “And, in spite of being such a highly regarded figure, he was always humble.”
When Lewis spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, Sen. Angus King was there as “an idealistic 19-year-old sitting in a tree near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.” King joined Lewis for the annual march in Selma and visits to other historic civil rights locations in Alabama this spring.
“John Lewis fought every day of his life for the simple promise at the heart of the idea of America — liberty and justice for all. … We lost a true leader last night, one who literally helped bend the arc of our history toward justice. But we must not lose his commitment, his courage, nor his indomitable spirit,” King posted on Instagram.
“With the passing of Congressman John Lewis, America has lost a civil rights icon who changed history at great personal sacrifice,” Sen. Susan Collins said in a statement. She joined Lewis in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march
“Very few have worked as hard to make our country live up to its ideals as John Lewis,” Rep. Jared Golden said on Twitter. “Working with him in Congress, I’ve been inspired by his graceful leadership and service, ability to see good in all people, and strong sense of America’s conscience.
“As we grieve the passing of this giant, let’s resolve to follow his example as we confront these challenging times,” he added.
These are apt remembrances and, more important, timely calls for all of us to continue Lewis’ work for equality, with his sense of humility and optimism.