John Lewis

How this congressman used ‘good trouble’ to fight for civil rights

Growing up in the South during a time when Black people did not have the same rights as white people, John Lewis faced racial discrimination—and he did not like it. He fought for equality during the civil rights movement, marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., against oppression and risking his life for justice. Through grit and determination, he went from sitting on bus seats as an act of civil disobedience during the Freedom Rides to sitting in the halls of Congress as a champion for civil liberties.

Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, in rural Alabama. His parents were sharecroppers who worked on a farm picking cotton for landowners. As a young boy, Lewis also picked cotton and did other farm duties with his family. It was hard work, but he enjoyed being with the chickens. Lewis wanted to be a pastor, so he would preach to his feathered flock in the chicken coop while tending to the hens and counting their eggs. His inspiration was King, whose words Lewis listened to on the radio.

Lewis studied at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville and helped organize lunch sit-ins against segregated restaurants, where Black and white people could not eat together, Sometimes he’d be arrested for his actions, but Lewis accepted being thrown in jail for fighting for what is right, or “good trouble,” as he’d later call it. For instance, he was one of 13 original Freedom Riders, who travelled by bus to test laws that were supposed to protect Black people. But he was beaten and jailed several times on his journey.

Lewis’s most memorable act of “good trouble” occurred on March 7, 1965, when he led a group of 600 people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on what would be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Lewis, who was then only 25 years old, marched across the bridge in the fight for equal voting rights for Black people. In his bag he carried just a toothbrush, toothpaste, two books, an orange, and an apple. But he and the other peaceful protesters were met by police officers carrying batons. The police fired tear gas onto the crowd and attacked them, leaving many bloody and wounded. Lewis was knocked unconscious.

The events of Bloody Sunday were caught on camera and televised to the country. They attracted more protests. King joined Lewis and thousands of other protesters to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Their efforts eventually led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed the discriminatory practices that prevented many Black Americans from voting.

Lewis eventually became a congressman from Georgia in 1987, serving until his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 80 on July 17, 2020. During his time in Congress he continued his work for civil rights and encouraged young people do the hard work necessary to change the country by getting into “good trouble.”