This piece is a guest contribution from Generation Progress #Fight4AFuture Network member Brittany Carmelle Johnson to honor what Rep. Lewis means to many #Fight4AFuture Network members and young people around the country.
It contains a previously unpublished audio recording of a conversation between Brittany and Rep. Lewis from an intimate town hall in 2017.
It was nearly midnight on a warm night in Georgia, and I was on the balcony with neighbors discussing all that Rep. John Lewis stood for—a topic that always makes for long and unforgettable conversations. We had varying viewpoints on ongoing injustice in America and throughout the world, but we found it refreshing to be among women who allowed one another to be honest and vulnerable about what plagues us every day.
Towards the end of our conversation we took a quick intermission. During this time, I noticed my phone buzz with an alert from CNN. I saw Rep. Lewis’s name and thought, “Well, look at the universe speaking him up.” However, as I looked closer, I saw the headline read, “John Lewis has passed away after 6 months of battling cancer.” I opened my eyes wider as if that would change the words I was reading. Shock took over as my body reacted involuntarily to a loss of another great influencer.
I kept my emotions to myself as the other ladies came back outside, pushing them down like the pride of the backs America stands on everyday just to get ahead. I woke up the next morning crushed, yet at the same time, full of gratitude for the ways in which Rep. Lewis’s legacy helped to shape my perspective on the importance of political education.
Nevertheless, I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit it was once a struggle for me to understand and respect his generation. During a time when I felt let down and lost, I was, frankly, upset with Rep. Lewis and other politicians. I could not understand why, after all these decades, it was still so difficult to make much-needed changes in America. I wondered—is it really that hard to change laws and make new ones?
Later, I was introduced to Generation Progress, an organization which changed my life for the better. I joined the #Fight4AFuture network in 2015 and met amazing changemakers on staff—Maggie Thompson, Chelsea Coatney— and in the network—Brent Hamlet, Jes Phillips, Mariam El-Haj, Ronnie Mosley, Zakyia Esper, Bruce Franks Jr., and more amazing souls who dedicate their lives to necessary change. Through this foundation my question was answered. YES… it’s that hard to bring change when others sitting at the table have a different agenda.
Even with people who had different agendas, Rep. Lewis set the bar high while interacting with people from all walks of life. I realized that as a result of the adversity he faced not only while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, he understood his fight was for something bigger than himself. I didn’t have the educational foundation needed to understand politics prior to joining #Fight4AFuture. I am glad I do now. I learned that what one doesn’t understand by nature, one tends to fear and resent without warrant. Who was I to be upset unless I had walked the walk and talked the talk, as Rep. Lewis did? I realized I needed to check myself and look in the mirror.
Many share the pain brought on by Rep. Lewis’s passing—including myself—and are thankful for his service to our country. However, as we have witnessed people across the globe say their last goodbyes and provide powerful eulogies to celebrate the life of an incredible man, several of his colleagues took to social media to pay their respects—and shared photos of a different man, their former colleague Rep. Elijah Cummings, who passed away last year on October 17,2019.
This further opened my eyes to the fact that America still has a long way to go both individually and collectively. It was then I understood I had a responsibility to pass along the words that Rep. Lewis himself shared with me in 2017 at an intimate town hall in Atlanta, GA.
In that moment, Rep. Lewis conveyed a message for Millennials, the next generation, his generation, and people all over America who are struggling with misappropriation, racism, violence, systemic suppression, and inequality. This is what he wanted to share with you:
For anyone who didn’t understand why Rep. Lewis liked to cause “Good Trouble,” well, now you have some insight. I certainly gained a deeper appreciation for him in this moment. This is only one of many reasons that we must continue to push to expand and protect voting rights and civil rights, and demand overall change by applying pressure to those in the House and Senate, as well on officials on the local and state levels.
As I reminisce on our first encounter and those powerful words, I know that this article cannot begin to sum up all of the contributions that Rep. Lewis made to our society or how much he meant to so many. However, I find it comforting to know that once upon a time it was Rep. Lewis who was a young Black American who experienced the travesties we face today. He too was upset, tired, and angry and refused to simply accept a broken system. Rep. Lewis understood firsthand what my generation, Millennials, are up against. He knew that the generations of young people after him would need to stir up some “Good Trouble” of our own to create our own legacies and ensure his is never forgotten. .
His work and dedication to his country, a country that did not always stand up for him nor have his best interests at heart, made me ask myself—what does Rep. Lewis really mean to me?
It is rather simple. To me, honoring the legacy of Rep. Lewis means fighting for “necessary, uncomfortable change” that helps serve the greater good of all humankind; the type of change that replaces inequality with unity, love, and equality; injustice with justice. I too was an angry person who has experienced injustices and continued to watch them occur—not only in America but across the world.
Rep. Lewis: I hope you know you are appreciated not only for making change the best way you could, but also for being on the front line as well. Unlike many politicians, you walked the walk, not just talked the talk. Thank you for all you have done for so many over the course of your life.
If you would like to know more about Rep. Lewis’s incredible life’s work I encourage you to go see his new movie, John Lewis: Good Trouble.