Rep. John Lewis remembers it all vividly. It was the 1940s and 1950s in Troy, Alabama, a small town situated about 50 miles from Montgomery’s metropolis. Everywhere, authorities in his hometown told him where his family were and were not welcome. Waiting areas, restrooms, and restaurants were divided by stark, one-line signs: “White” and “Colored.” He attended a segregated public school and would later write in his memoir that by the time he was six years old he had only ever seen two White people.
As a young boy, separated by miles and years from the bus boycott and the birth of the modern civil rights movement, Lewis knew something wasn’t right.
“I would ask my mother and my father and my grandparents and my great-grandparents: ‘Why?'” Lewis told A Plus. “And they would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.'”
But Lewis would get into trouble — lots of it. And more than 60 years later, the 78-year-old Democratic statesman speaks with reverence of the days when he stood on the front lines of protests staring down angry mobs or police lines. Lewis calls what he and his fellow civil rights leaders did “good trouble,” and he encourages others to take part.
“My philosophy is very simple,” Lewis said. “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have an obligation to do something, to say something. And you may get arrested or go to jail. You may be beaten and left bloody, unconscious. But you have to do what you think is right, do what you think is fair and do what you think is just. I have been doing it for many, many years now.”
He has the record to prove it.
According to his Congressional biography, Lewis was arrested more than 40 times. He organized non-violent protests against racial segregation all over the country, and endured physical attacks and serious injuries for his efforts. He participated in sit-in demonstrations protesting segregated lunch counters when he was a college student at Fisk University. He volunteered to sit in seats reserved for White patrons on the historic Freedom Rides across the country to protest segregated interstate bus terminals, and spent 40 days in a Mississippi jail for his trouble. As early as 1963, he was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and already considered a giant of the Civil Rights Movement. That year, he spoke alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1965, he led a march across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to fight for voting rights in Alabama. The march came to an end when the group of 600 protesters Lewis was with stopped to pray and a group of Alabama state troopers unleashed tear gas into the crowd, then charged on horseback and began beating the protesters with nightsticks. Lewis’s skulled was fractured in the fracas.
“We were beaten and left bloody,” Lewis remembered. “Some of us were left unconscious. Some of us almost died. Some of us were killed. But in the end, we succeeded in getting the Voting Rights Act passed and signed into law.”
Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images
Now, Lewis represents an Alabama district— its activists as well as its police officers — in Congress. The role he plays in our national discourse may have changed, but his belief in the power of protest hasn’t.
“I’ve said on many, many occasions, whatever you do, do it in an orderly, peaceful, non-violent way,” Lewis said. “Try to appeal to the best in someone and try to help educate and inspire others to join you.”
As Lewis has gotten older, he’s watched the way Americans protest evolve. While demonstrating today might be somewhat safer than it was during those tumultuous times in the Civil Rights Movement, the types of protests Lewis helped popularize are still used today. Sit-ins are common at the Washington D.C. Capitol building, and many commentators saw echoes of the March on Washington in the Women’s March. But social media has also entered the foray, employing hashtags and viral videos to call for boycotts, share stories of police brutality and raise awareness about social justice issues. Though some have called it “slactivism,” Lewis said he believes social media activism is a powerful and important tool for protest, noting that he will sometimes have his staff tweet or send messages on his behalf.
Online activism is, of course, often intertwined with off-line efforts. The two women who confronted Sen. Jeff Flake in an elevator prior to Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation also contributed to the hashtags #CancelKavanaugh and #StopKavanaugh. During a phone interview, Lewis described the encounter as a solid example of “good trouble” and lauded the women for stepping up on an issue they cared about.
“I would qualify what these two women did when they did confronted a member of the United States Senate [as good trouble] — they stood up and they looked him straight in the eye and said to him, ‘look at me,'” Lewis said. “‘Look at me,’ one kept saying. That’s good trouble — that’s meeting it head on. That is saying that you can do something, you have the power to act. Whether it’s the football players kneeling or whether it’s people marching, women marching, students marching, you have to be engaged. You cannot stand on the sideline. That’s all good trouble.”
Other recent protests have been more controversial. In the last year, members of the Trump administration and members of Congress have been confronted repeatedly in public. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was confronted with chants of “Shame!” when she tried to dine at a Mexican restaurant in Washington. Sen. Ted Cruz and his wife were shouted at until they had to leave a different D.C. area restaurant.
Asked if he supported those kinds of controversial public confrontations, Lewis seemed to stop short of offering approval. Instead, he said that Americans can “never, ever give up on the right to protest what is right.”
“That’s what Dr. King said over and over again,” he added. “You have to use peaceful, orderly, non-violent protest to help educate and inform and inspire people to move in the right direction and to act to make things better.”
After decades of activism, Lewis said there is still one form of protest that was superior to all the others. It’s the very same form that Lewis was fighting for all the way back in 1965 when he marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
And with the midterms elections right around the corner, it couldn’t be more relevant for Americans across the country.
“The vote is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in our democratic society,” Lewis said. “And we must use it. We must use it to change things. We must use it to inspire other people to join the effort to register, to vote and to encourage young people and especially minorities to run for office.”
Cover image via REUTERS/Joshua Roberts.