I awoke Saturday morning to the news that US Congressman, civil-rights activist, and absolute badass legend John Lewis had died. This is bad and sad for all the usual reasons, but also because we still need him. His work is not yet done — far from it. This is a man who, as a youngster, charmed his way into Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle, protested peacefully — and successfully — in the 1960s for the rights of Black Americans, and passed numerous progressive bills during his decades in Congress. When I first saw John Lewis: Good Trouble a little over a week ago, I initially found Dawn Porter’s terrific documentary about the life and work of the Congressman bitterly ironic, in that much of the progress that he had literally put his life on the line for half a century ago is again threatened, and so he’s been having to fight some of the same battles all over again. But now that he’s gone? It’s all so damned tragic, and absolutely enraging. Lewis’s story is a harsh underscoring of how America has regressed in recent years.
No one ever said that bending the arc of history toward justice would be easy, but c’mon.
If you don’t already understand the depth of the impact that Lewis had in securing the civil liberties of Black Americans (and by extension, if you’re self-centered enough to need to hear this, of all Americans), then Good Trouble is a must-see. He was on that bridge in Selma, Alabama, named for a KKK grand dragon whose name I won’t repeat, for the march in 1965 that the cops used as an excuse to beat up peaceful Black people. (Lewis’s skull was fractured in the police-lead riot. He is played by Stephan James in Ava DuVernay’s docudrama Selma.) Lewis was the last surviving speaker of the historic March on Washington in 1963, the one at which Reverend King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. I was ignorant enough about 1960s civil-rights struggles not to have realized before right now that there were lots of speakers at that 1963 march. For some reason, I always thought it was just King who spoke.
So I really needed this documentary — as do so many others who are similarly woefully uneducated about this aspect of history — not only for its essential portrait of Lewis but for the associated lessons in how he and his colleagues prepared for and pulled off their peaceful protests. Vintage footage of them training themselves to endure the vile racist hatred they expected to have hurled at them during desegregation protests is horrific, angry-making, and heartbreaking, but not as much as footage of the protests themselves, and the abuse they took in the name of justice. I confess that it’s difficult for me to take onboard the idea underlying passive resistance, that “as creatively as possible, seek to be loving and forgiving in the situation.” I don’t know how easy I would find that. But I do see how the overarching idea behind regular quiet protests works, to simply “wear down” the majority, to no longer accept the status quo and make it impossible for the opposition to continue to accept it, either.
Porter’s compassionate and often surprisingly humorous film shows that Lewis was still up for a fight, right to the end. Which was needed, as massive efforts at voter suppression are happening all over the US right now, and threaten the very basis of democracy. We are beyond lucky to have had Lewis for as long as we did… and we are enormously poorer for having lost him. But we can heed his words here and take inspiration from him: “If you don’t do everything you can to change things, it will remain the same. You only pass this one once, and you have to give it all you have.” He certainly did that, and now more of us have to step up and join the fight.
John Lewis: Good Trouble was the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for July 17th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.