Video: John Lewis with his Presidential Medal of Freedom
The late civil rights activist pushed America, even beyond Selma.
These past few weeks, entertainment and media mourned too many good people. Glee’s cast suffered another too-soon loss of life with Naya Rivera. As Santana Lopez, she taught us about the stigmas and prejudice lesbian women face. Regis Philbin passed away late last month as well. As television’s most approachable face, Regis taught us the values of humility and comedy. Respectively, these lives allow us to see two ends of a spectrum: A life cut far too short on one side, and a full, long life lived out to the end on the other. John Lewis was on both ends of that spectrum.
John Lewis was the man. He was one of the Civil Rights Movement’s “Big Six.” He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Lewis spent over 33 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. More powerful than his resume was his ability to influence others. His experience was real and impactful for people everywhere. Lewis spoke to young people often, and was a major proponent of getting into what he called, “good trouble.” He was arrested twenty-four times in nonviolent protests by the time he was twenty-three years old. His life was full, but it’s hard to think that it was not cut short. Lewis spent his life fighting for civil rights and inspiring others to do the same. Eighty years was a long enough life to see and affect many changes, but it was tragically too short to see true equality.
John Lewis found any way he could to inspire others to want change. He created a legacy through media.
On Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965), Lewis became the bludgeoned face of voting equality. His bloodied head would travel across America on television sets and newspaper pages. In August of the same year, the Voting Rights Act became law. Lewis’s life exemplifies the importance of media in progressive change. He spoke plainly about issues to individuals and large crowds with purpose and style as a true master of speech-craft. It’s not easy to stand out as a U.S. Representative, as there are 435 members of the House. Anyone who has heard him speak can attest that his voice carries. His writing carries too. Lewis created a bold presence of himself, always where others would least expect it from him.
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In 2013, Lewis released the first part of his autobiographical graphic novel trilogy, March. Critics lauded the trilogy, and book #3 landed the entire series as the top three books of The New York Times’ Graphic Books Best Sellers for six weeks. For the comic community, this was huge. Bringing real racial conversations to the comic community meant that visual storytelling was creating more room for change, and more room for Black fans. In an area where many racists and bigots are appeased and catered to, there were visual stories for young people to read that made sense. The characters were real, the stories were real, and the heroes were real. Lewis knew more than anyone how important a visual can be to a narrative. Images are much harder to argue with or make excuses for, even if they are just illustrations. Crowds gathered to see Lewis at the San Diego Comic Con in 2013 and again in 2016. He had a way of manipulating media in certain spheres to affect real change.
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Good trouble goes a long way for the people of America.
I have a brilliant friend from my hometown who was his class’ valedictorian in high school. I was shocked to see he was arrested several years ago while he was attending Yale University. He was arrested at a protest on campus. I’m sure Yale didn’t love the idea of seeing it’s students arrested on-campus protesting University practices. Lewis’s push for good trouble meant sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong. Give news publishers a headline people can’t ignore. If your word or your voice feels unimportant in a certain area, force your way in. When Lewis was a boy, he was limited. His skin color deemed him as lesser. If he read comic books in his youth, the heroes never shared experiences with him. He changed everything for the children who would come after his time. For people my age and younger, it’s hard to even imagine the world as it was before Lewis brought his influence into it. I know, though, that I can be thankful to John Lewis for my attitude toward my friend’s arrest. I was proud.
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Lewis’s legacy lives on as a vendetta against inequality. As a society, we re-examine our ideas of criminality because of him and his influence. He set up a world where criminals and troublemakers can be distinguished. Thanks to his convictions, many are able to separate the lawful and the good with a finer distinction. Without Lewis, we wouldn’t consider defunding the police as much as we have. Without Lewis, we might be more inclined to trust the law over our fellow country folk. Without Lewis, we’d likely fear arrest over the inequality we could stand against. Now, we can respect a good, healthy arrest record. In his eighty years, John Lewis gave blood to ensure a voice for marginalized groups. He became a superhero for all of us. We remember him, the good he did, and the trouble he put himself into for the future of our world.
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