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John Lewis, good trouble, and compassion

The lessons of the life of John Lewis are particularly applicable today

John Lewis, who was a better man than I could ever hope to be, died last night at the age of 80.

If you don’t know who John Lewis, if you don’t know what he did or why everyone is mourning his death, take a few minutes to read about him. He was a man who, in his early 20s, was willing to risk his safety, his freedom, and his life to make the world a better place. The photo accompanying this article is his mugshot, taken in 1961, when, at the age of 21, Lewis was arrested and served 37 days in prison for using a white restroom in Mississippi.

The iconic photograph below shows a 25 year old Lewis — the man in the front in the light trench coat with a backpack — facing officials during a march in Selma, Alabama, after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. The county sheriff had deputized every white male in the county over the age of 21 that morning, allowing every white male adult in the community to participate in the terrorizing of the protesters under the color of law.

“Two Minute Warning,” Spider Martin’s iconic photograph from Bloody Sunday

The protesters were told to disperse. When they didn’t officers descended on them, putting 17 in the hospital, including a 14 year old girl who needed 35 stitches. Lewis suffered a fractured skull as a result of the beating he received.

News programs across the country aired film of the incident, newspapers and magazine ran pictures of the brutality and the abuse suffered by the victims, and that day — which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” — became a turning point in the Civil Rights movement. President Lyndon Johnson condemned what happened, and promised to send a voting rights bill to Congress. The Civil Rights Act was enacted less than four months later.

John Lewis was a fighter. Coming of age in an era of legal segregation and oppression of African Americans, he risked his life to bring about change. He was an advocate and believer in non-violent resistance, but was not afraid to be confrontational — at the 1963 March on Washington, where he was one of the speakers, the leaders of the march made him tone down his planned speech, feeling it was too inflammatory.

But what I find especially remarkable about John Lewis — what has me writing about him today — is his capacity for compassion. His later life was filled with reconciliation with those who had fought him, who had opposed him, who came to realize they were wrong. Lewis saw that as an essential part of his worldview, of his embrace of non-violence resistance.

Lewis wrote in his memoir:

When you can truly understand and feel, even as a person is cursing you to your face, even as he is spitting on you, or pushing a lit cigarette into your neck, or beating you with a truncheon – if you can understand and feel … that your attacker is as much a victim as you are, that he is a victim of the forces that have shaped and fed his anger and fury, then you are well on your way to the nonviolent life.

John Lewis stared evil in the face. He confronted oppression being wielded by the state — oppression as official government policy — and was repeatedly arrested, was physically beaten, saw colleagues murdered. He knew that there were people who would murder him if given the chance. I can only imagine how easy it would be for someone in that situation to let hate and anger consume them.

And instead, he embraced compassion. And spent his life working towards reconciliation, believing in redemption. He believed, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution article linked above explained, that “even the most despicable people are capable of unlearning hate when shown compassion.”

The life of John Lewis provides lessons for us. There is the lesson about being willing to fight for justice — to be willing to “get in good trouble,” as he famously said. And there’s also the harder lesson, the one he lived so much in his later life — that people can repent, can be redeemed, and fighting for change also means being prepared to offer forgiveness where it is due.