John Lewis Could Never Rest

I’m not even going to get into how 2020 has robbed us of so many good ones and left us quite a few of the crappy ones. John Lewis was among the good ones—a good man who caused good trouble.

When he passed this summer, I began to learn much more about him than when he was alive—even though I was a great admirer of his. If you’ve never read the 1996 memoire of his life and involvement in the civil rights movement, Walking With the Wind, I highly recommend it.

Aside from the many remarkable things I was struck with throughout his life story, was the fact that in describing some of the societal battles of the 90s, he honestly could have been talking about our present day. And this coming from a man who’d been through the worst of it in the 60s.

In 1996, I was 21 years old. And I’m going to make a confession. I voted Republican to impress my ex-boyfriend. Let’s put that in the bucket of “Stupid Things Girls Do in the Name of Males Who Aren’t Worth It.” So yes, I voted for Bob Dole. Admittedly, I wasn’t impressed with Bill Clinton’s womanizing issues and the many complaints that had already come forward—and this was long before Monica Lewinsky became a household name. I really didn’t know too much about other issues at that time. And I’m not proud of how oblivious I was to the issues that would shape my generation and our lives as working adults and parents.

So back to John Lewis. Peep this: “The recent movement toward school choice and the dismantling of court-ordered desegregation is causing schools and communities to coalesce into separate enclaves of blacks, whites, and Hispanics. The people supporting the notion of school “vouchers” are primarily people who have already pulled their children out of public schools and who now want to drain the public coffers for the privileged few. I think it is cynical and self-serving of them to pretend that their concern is for the quality of education of the students who have been left behind in those neglected, decaying schools. Pretty transparently, their concern is to stop paying taxed for a system they have already abandoned. This is just one of the many paths leading to resegregation, and we cannot afford to let it happen.”

I was kind of floored by this—perhaps naively, I thought this whole voucher thing was a just a machination of Amway queen, Betsy Devos. But this was a thing 24 years ago and Lewis saw its perils back then.

Speaking of Newt Gingrich—a name I remember tossed around as a great example of a divisive crackpot embraced by those on the extreme right—John Lewis’ words about him echoed sentiments that might as well be repeated today.

“Newt and his followers represent a different breed of politician, one that is mean, angry, vindictive and harsh. Compassion is not a term that seems to matter much in their vocabulary. They argue that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was a dismal failure, that it set the country back, made people dependent, misallocated precious resources and sowed the seeds of most of the problems society faces today. They argue that those problems stem from “big government.” Their mandate—their “Contract with America”—is to dismantle that government, to pull apart the federal system and put control back in the hands of states and localities, back as they put it, “in the hands of the people.”

Heard anything like that lately?

How tired must he have been having to fight in the 60s, fight in the 90s, and then to see Trump come to power? If only he didn’t pass before he could feel the sweet relief of watching him voted out.

Career politicians, among the many things they are called, are tenacious. John Lewis, however, was never in it to hold on to power till the end of his days. For him, it was about fighting the fight, and causing “good trouble,” for as long as it would take for things to get better and actually stay that way.

That’s a legacy to admire—the kind that doesn’t quit. The kind that keeps going on. The kind that takes a stand (power to him for boycotting the inauguration of a president he knew would be very bad for America).

Good trouble is exactly that: good and necessary. Now more than ever.