“The most important lesson I have learned in the fifty years I have spent working toward the building of a better world is that the true work of social transformation starts within. It begins inside your own heart and mind, because the battleground of human transformation is really, more than any other thing, the struggle within the human consciousness to believe and accept what is true. Thus to truly revolutionize our society, we must first revolutionize ourselves. We must be the change we seek if we are to effectively demand transformation from others.”
–from John Lewis’s Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change
Congressman John Lewis’s recent passing has been heartbreaking. He left an indelible mark upon all of us and inspired us to be transformative leaders. A recent statement by the Congressional Black Caucus said, “the world has lost a legend; the civil rights movement has lost an icon, the City of Atlanta has lost one of its most fearless leaders, and the Congressional Black Caucus has lost our longest serving member.” I have been in higher education for over twenty years and throughout this time period, I have personally experienced Representative John Lewis’s authentic engagement and tireless commitment to justice and equal rights.
I became aware of Lewis’s activism at an early age when my mother would take me to the public library to check out books about famous African-Americans. Throughout high school and college, I was active in NAACP Youth and College Chapter Division, and so I was deeply immersed in the history and legacy of civil rights leaders like Congressman Lewis. During my doctoral studies, I conducted research on the importance of women’s leadership roles during the civil rights movement, which led me to iconic movement leaders such as Representative John Lewis, former UN ambassador Andrew Young, and Children’s Defense Fund Founder Marian Wright Edelman, all of whom worked closely with movement leaders such as SNCC Advisor Ella Baker, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and SNCC Leader Fannie Lou Hamer, and SCLC Citizenship School Founder and Architect Septima Clark.
I have had the good fortune to witness Representative Lewis’s commitment to equal access to education and civil rights on numerous occasions. He was the kind of leader who would always make everyone feel important and leave a lasting impression. I was especially struck by the outpouring of tributes and how many people posted pictures with him—a testimony to his “truly being with the people.” He was committed to educating students and deeply believed in their capacity to be transformative leaders.
His biography, Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. written with Michael D’Orso, is a recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf Book and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards. Representative Lewis was also the author of Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, written with Brenda Jones, and winner of the 2012 NAACP Image Award for Best Literary Work-Biography. Given his work and legacy in the movement, he is also the main subject of other monographs including: Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement, by Ann Bausum and John Lewis in the Lead, by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson, illustrated by Bennie Andrews.
Representative John Lewis was the co-author of the National Book Award-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novel memoir trilogy MARCH, written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. The MARCH trilogy has been adopted into the core curriculum of school systems across the country to teach the Civil Rights Movement to the next generation, and has been selected as a First-Year common reading text at numerous colleges and universities throughout the United States. Representative Lewis dedicated his life to promoting human rights and creating the “The Beloved Community.” Many referred to him as “the conscience of the U.S. Congress,” while others proclaimed that “John Lewis…is a genuine American hero and moral leader who commands widespread respect in the chamber” because of his unique ability to generate bipartisan support throughout his political career. In recognition of his legacy and impact on American society, I wanted to share three leadership lessons that Congressman John Lewis constantly embodied and modeled for me, countless students, and the many young people he inspired throughout his career.
Lesson 1- Congressman Lewis embraced humility, but also emphasized the importance of being a bold and courageous leader.
Congressman Lewis came from humble beginnings and he spent his lifetime ensuring that everyone had an equal opportunity and access to realizing their fullest potential. He would always tell me and my students to “make good trouble.”
Congressman Lewis was the son of sharecroppers and grew up on his family’s farm outside of Troy, Alabama. He attended segregated schools and was inspired by the activism of leaders such as NAACP Branch Secretary and Youth Division Advisor Rosa Parks, who was the catalyst for the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was the spokesperson for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) whom he would listen to on the radio.
During his undergraduate studies at Fisk University, Congressman Lewis organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and joined in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. He was also beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging Jim Crow segregation in the South. From 1963 to 1966, Representative Lewis was Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. At the age of 23, he was an architect and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963, where he declared “we don’t want our freedom gradually, we want our freedom now.” Even at a young age, he was considered one of the “Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement” and he modeled the importance of being a bold and courageous leader.
Lesson 2- Representative Lewis made a lifelong commitment to justice and equal rights. He was unwavering is his commitment to the well-being of others and he consistently built teams with staff members who enabled him to amplify his impact.
In 1964, John Lewis was a key leader of SNCC’s efforts to organize voter registration drives during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The following year, Representative Lewis spearheaded one of the most seminal moments of the Civil Rights Movement. He and Hosea Williams, another influential Civil Rights leader, led hundreds of peaceful protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. Pettus, was a former Confederate brigadier general, a U.S. senator, and grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Lewis and his fellow protestors were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a violent confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” News reports showed pictures of the brutality and one major outcome of this protest was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even though Congressman Lewis was arrested more than 40 times and endured numerous physical attacks and very serious injuries, he remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence.
Representative Lewis transitioned from SNCC in 1966 to his work as the Associate Director of the Field Foundation while also continuing his participation in the Southern Regional Council’s voter registration programs. He went on to become the Director of the Voter Education Project (VEP) and during his tenure, the VEP transformed the nation’s political climate by adding nearly four million people of color to the voter rolls. In 1977, John Lewis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency. He entered the political arena in 1981 and was elected to the Atlanta City Council. In November of 1986, he was elected to Congress as the U.S. Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District where he served until his untimely death on July 16, 2020.
Congressman Lewis served with distinction. He was the Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party, a member of the House Ways & Means Committee, and Chairman of its Subcommittee on Oversight. Legislatively, Congressman championed the Voter Empowerment Act, which would modernize registration and voting in America in order to increase access to the ballot. Following the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016, Representative Lewis led Democrats in a 26-hour sit-in on the House floor to demand that the body debate gun control measures. Every year, he led a pilgrimage to Selma to commemorate the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On several instances, he invited his colleagues from both the Democrat and Republican parties to be part of these monumental, commemorative activities.
I was struck, but not surprised to learn about the final press release from his office. Congressman Lewis shared an update about his leadership of a bipartisan group and their letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in support of two Center for Civic Education grant applications for the Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) Program funding. These grants would expand the Center’s work to provide teachers with professional development in the fields of civics and government across the country. In addition, these grants, “would provide critical support for the training of a new corps of highly effective elementary school, middle school, and high school teachers of civics and government.” More importantly, they would “give students the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to become competent and responsible citizens guided by a reasoned commitment to the fundamental values and principles of American democracy.” For civic education to be one Congressman Lewis’s final legislative acts is poetic and exemplary of his dedication to ensure that young people are knowledgeable about American democracy.
Being in his Washington, DC office was an especially memorable experience for me. Every spring I would take a delegation of my students to the Hill, and Congressman Lewis’s office was one of the highlights. There were snacks (which my students loved), his staff made you feel welcomed and appreciative of your visit, and his office was covered with historic pictures and memorabilia from the Civil Rights Movement. I can close my eyes and see so many buttons, pins and pictures which are reminiscent of Congressman’s Lewis’s days at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a powerful, teachable moment for me and my students. Living history- Congressman Lewis was the embodiment of it!
His entire staff was also tireless in their support of him. They had a shared mission and vision, and understood that the demands of working with Congressman Lewis meant it went beyond the “normal 9 to 5.” I am especially grateful to his Chief of Staff Michael Collins, who had been with Congressman Lewis for nearly twenty years, and Brenda Jones, who had worked with him for a number of years as his Communications Director, for their fortitude, dedication, and unwavering commitment. Congressman Lewis built a team that not only supported and believed in him, but also believed in the power of transformative leadership. They appreciated and embraced that Representative Lewis was a powerful conduit in making the “Beloved Community” a real possibility in contemporary American society.
Lesson 3- He was deeply committed to education with a focus on empowering others and training future leaders in order to create a Beloved Community.
Congressman John Lewis earned his undergraduate degree in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University, and he was a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary. He was awarded over fifty honorary degrees from some of the leading colleges and universities throughout the United States, including Harvard University, Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Duke University, Morehouse College, Clark-Atlanta University, Howard University, Brandeis University, Columbia University, Fisk University, and Troy State University.
He was also the recipient of numerous awards from prominent national and international institutions, including the highest civilian honor granted by President Barack Obama, the Medal of Freedom. He also received the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the National Education Association Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award, and the only John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for Lifetime Achievement ever granted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. During my tenure as a Dean at Harvard Kennedy School, I had the privilege of working closely with Representative Lewis on several occasions.
In 2012, he received an honorary degree from Harvard University. In 2016, he joined President Drew Faust for the unveiling of a plaque at Wadsworth House recognizing four enslaved persons and their work with former Harvard Presidents. In 2017, the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership presented Congressman Lewis with the Gleitsman Activist Award, an award that has been given to Tarana Burke, Malala Yousafzai, Bryan Stevenson, Nelson Mandela, and other exceptional individuals who have sparked transformative social change.
The award was presented in the Kennedy School Forum and included ImeIme Umana, an MPP and JD degree candidate who served as the president (and the first Black female president) of the Harvard Law Review. ImeIme was also a Sheila C. Johnson Fellow. The Sheila Johnson Fellows program was funded by philanthropist, American businesswoman, co-founder of BET, and Founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts-Sheila C. Johnson. (Johnson is also the first African-American woman to attain a net worth of at least one billion dollars. She brought together the top student policy leaders in the country dedicated to addressing disparities in predominantly underserved communities through efforts in education, economic development, criminal justice reform, social entrepreneurship, and a variety of other fields.)
Johnson hosted Representative Lewis and invited her fellows to an intensive leadership seminar with him, where he not only shared his experiences, but took photos with every single student. Upon learning about Congressman Lewis’s passing, many of them posted their photos on social media to pay tribute to him. Professor David Gergen, then the director of CPL, said “John Lewis has dedicated his life to activism on behalf of human rights, always with extraordinary courage, fierce determination, and a capacity to inspire others.” In his Commencement address to Harvard’s Class of 2018 Congressman Lewis told the students: “You must lead. You must get out there…and be headlight and not a taillight. It’s your time. It’s your calling.”
Although Congressman Lewis may be physically gone, his spirit lives within each of us. My hope is that we will heed his call to “Get out there and help people.” We must “change our society. Help redeem not just the soul of America, but the soul of the world.”
United States Representative John Lewis’s legacy deserves that and nothing less.
In honor of Representative John Lewis, Reverend C.T. Vivian, and so many other Freedom Fighters, I will be hosting and convening Freedom Summer 2020: Making Black Lives Matter- Race, Religion and Equal Rights in America, a call to action and weekly conversation series beginning today, July 19th until August 30th, 2020 from 5-6pm EST.
Learn more and register in advance for this free webinar:
Confirmed Speakers include:
Rev. Dr. William Barber
Dr. Cornel West
Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes
Maggie Anderson, Esq.
Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman