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John Lewis: A Life of Advocacy and Action for Change

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By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt, PMP, CLTD
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics, American Military University

On July 17, 2020, our nation lost a national treasure. Gone at the age of 80, Congressman John Lewis died peacefully in his Atlanta home after a courageous battle with cancer. While many may remember him as a civil rights leader, he also was the author/co-author of over 200 pieces of legislation over his 30-year career in the House of Representatives.

‘Good Trouble,’ Protests and Advocating for Equality 

Born outside of Troy, Alabama, John Lewis served as one of the youngest organizers and speakers at the March on Washington in 1963. One of his most famous quotes was that he encouraged people to get into ‘good trouble.’

Lewis was a Freedom Rider and led the March 7, 1965 demonstration that became known as Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. He remarked that 600 civil rights marchers were beaten and bloodied on that day so that every American citizen one day would have the right to vote and have the same civil rights.

Lewis himself was beaten and got a concussion. He was arrested that day while heading east out of Selma on U.S. Route 80 via the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Currently, there is a petition circulating to rename this bridge after John Lewis. It has currently received over 500,000 signatures.

John Lewis was an advocate for orderly and peaceful non-violence. He served as the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and spent most of his life advocating for equality, writing bipartisan voting rights legislation.

Lewis was also instrumental in helping get the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed. He was elected to Congress in 1986 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

John Lewis Knew that Advocacy Passes from One Generation to Another

Lewis had a legacy of advocacy that is apparent in his efforts to advance voting rights for all Americans. In addition, he often stated the ability to vote is one of the most powerful nonviolent means to protest and advocate in a democratic society.

Advocacy did not start with Lewis, but with his ancestors. His great-grandfather was one of the first African Americans to register to vote after receiving the news that the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves. John carried the card in his wallet as a reminder of how our ancestors impact and influence the lives of all generations that follow them.

Bringing a National Museum from Dream to Reality

Lewis introduced legislation to create the first Smithsonian Museum to highlight the plight of African Americans. The Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture officially opened its doors on September 24, 2016, thanks to Lewis and many benefactors.

John Lewis Was the Last of the ‘Big Six’ Civil Rights Leaders

In a USA Today article, writers Nicquel Terry Ellis and Deborah Barfield Berry state that “Lewis’ death serves as the end of an era — he was the last surviving member of the ‘Big Six’ civil rights leaders who organized and spoke at the March on Washington for civil and economic rights of Black people. The group included Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young.”

The Big Six left a civil rights legacy that was not just national, but global as well. Their vision was realized in the March on Washington, which took several months to plan and implement.

What John Lewis Taught Us about Allyship

While many people may see Lewis’s passing as the end of an era, it is also the dawn of a new beginning. There are many parallels between the civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests of George Floyd, both nationally and internationally, have been compared to the civil rights movement protests in the 1960s and the March on Washington that involved Lewis’s organization and participation.

Likewise, one of Lewis’s innate abilities was to forge ahead and work collaboratively with both Democrats and Republicans, especially with like-minded people from different levels of society. The legacy of Lewis lives on through allyship, which is defined as the ability of supporters from all backgrounds to do their part in the fight against racism.

John explained his concept of ‘good trouble’ as meaning that good people need to be engaged in the fight for equality and justice. They need to speak up and speak out, and they should use their talents to learn when and how to contribute to the national conversation.

This behavior is the very essence of allyship. In the past weeks, we’ve witnessed allyship from not only other cultures and races, but also from other nations through non-violent protests, active communication, and the neuroscience of persuasion.

How You Can Become an Ally

Allyship and advocacy go hand in hand. So to continue the push toward social, economic and racial equality, each of us has a role to play. As Mireille Cassandra Harper outlines in Vogue UK, donating to non-profit organizations, voting for like-minded political officials, and focusing on the impact rather than the intention are all ways that each person can continue the push toward a fair and impartial society that celebrates both the similarities and differences of its citizens.

John Lewis gave many speeches. He once said, “Don’t get lost in a sea of despair. Swimming against the current isn’t easy, but it’s necessary to reach the goal. In order to reach the goal, the framework of passive resistance can be a powerful, yet necessary vehicle to highlight the inactions of local, state, and federal government and to address the systemic injustices that prevails throughout our society. It only takes one to start the conversation, and allies are needed to finish it. And that’s the very essence of ‘good trouble.’”

About the Author

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Military University and has 20 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

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