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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: The prescience of John Lewis

Georgia Congressman John Lewis speaks at the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 2013 in Washington, DC, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech.
Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock
Georgia Congressman John Lewis speaks at the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 2013 in Washington, DC, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech.

Last month, communities across the U.S. gathered in prayer and in service to others to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on what would’ve been his 95th birthday. Two days ago, it was the 84th birthday of my personal hero, the late Civil Rights activist and U.S. Congressman John Lewis.

Lewis was born the son of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama on February 21, 1940, one of ten children. He earned the nickname “preacher” for practicing his oratory skills on the chickens he fed daily, one of his many tasks on the farm his family was bound to. From his earliest days, he named and fought against the racism of the Jim Crow south. Sharecropping indebted poor families, both Black and white, to rich, white landowners who hoarded the profits for themselves, dooming sharecroppers to inescapable poverty.

Around this time, Lewis heard another preacher who mesmerized him with his sermons that interwove the ungodly injustices that Black Americans faced with the justice called for in the Scriptures. It was a radical departure from the usual fare of urging poor Black people to wait for their just rewards in Heaven. That preacher was Dr. King. Lewis railed against every iteration of injustice he witnessed in the Jim Crow south. Though he wouldn’t name it as such for several more decades, he was making “good trouble, necessary trouble.”

He left Troy in 1957 for the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville on a work-study program. In seminary, Lewis met other students hungry for justice and ready to make “necessary trouble.” He and his fellow students began organizing sit-ins to integrate Nashville’s segregated lunch counters.

Lewis helped train his fellow students in the tenants of non-violence espoused by Mahatma Gandhi. It was intense and rigorous, a true exercise in turning the other cheek. Students dressed impeccably and conducted themselves with the utmost respect for people who disrespected them, for people who called them vile names, beat them, and even sprayed them with insecticide as they sat peacefully at the counter, wanting only to eat with the same dignity afforded to white people.

Ponder that for a moment and ask yourself: “Could I remain calm and resist a counterattack in the face of such indignation?” The courage and discipline it took for Lewis and his fellow students to do so astounds me.

In 1963 at age 23, Lewis spoke at the March on Washington alongside Dr. King as a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. When I was 23, I was drinking with my friends from beer bongs we made from 2-liter bottles, radiator clamps, and PVC tubing.

Lewis moved from integrating lunch counters to dismantling the segregated transportation systems in the south as a Freedom Rider, despite constant threats to him and his fellow activists. He was arrested 40 times between 1960-1966, all for trying to secure freedoms for Black people afforded to white people without question.

Even though the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964, little progress had been made to secure the franchise for southern Black people, who were terrorized by poll taxes, literacy tests, violence, and even threats of death for attempting to register to vote.

The turning point was Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when Lewis and 600 other marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettis bridge on the Selma to Montgomery March to register Black people to vote. That night, ABC interrupted the film Judgement at Nuremberg to show shocking footage of police and racist mobs beating Lewis and the other marchers with sticks, fists, and clubs, some wrapped in barbed wire. This brutality occurring in America and juxtaposed with a movie about the Nazi regime was a wake-up call for Americans thirsting for change.

Under court order and accompanied by federal troops, King and Lewis led a much larger Selma to Montgomery March two weeks later. Five months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

It wasn’t mere victory that Lewis sought. What he sought was for Black Americans to live freely on their own terms, not those dictated by the oppressing class. He graduated with degrees in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University in Nashville, remained a voting rights advocate, and was elected to the city council in Atlanta. Later, Lewis was elected to Congress and served Georgia’s 5th Congressional district from 1987 until his death in July 2020.

During a speech at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in March 2020, Lewis told the crowd gathered to commemorate the Selma to Montgomery March: "Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America."    The soul of America sorely needs redemption in the wake of the 2013 Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision that decimated critical protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It needs redemption in a country where, according to a 2022 NBC News story, Black Americans comprised 13% of the U.S. population yet accounted for 27% of fatal police shootings that previous year. Before his passing, John Lewis knew that much of what he fought for was eroding. He stated: “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

Ensuring the franchise and the freedom to exist in society without the threat of death for everyone sound like freedom ringing to me at this fraught moment.

Music: "Beautiful People" by Curtis Harding

Barbara Allison is a writer, photographer, editor, maker, mom, and wife. She is a Content Specialist in Communications and Marketing for the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ Sisters in Plymouth, Indiana. She also worked as a journalist in South Bend for 30 years.