Congressman John Robert Lewis was just 17
when he reached out to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a letter
conveying his desire to attend all-white Troy State College (now Troy
State University) that was just ten miles from his home. Lewis
submitted an application but never heard from the college, and hoped
King would help. Instead, he went to Fisk University. Later, Dr. King
reached out to him and invited him to visit Montgomery during spring.
That was the beginning of John Lewis’s relationship with King
and his 60-plus year commitment to the civil rights movement.
Lewis, who died on July 17, exemplified so many things. Commitment.
Resilience. Humility. Goodwill. Good Trouble. He died at 80, and
there are photos of him, as a much younger man, marching alongside
Dr. King and so many others. One of the things that strikes me about
this remarkable man is how young he was when he got involved in the
movement. As impressive as John Lewis was, he was one of several very
young people who put their lives on the line for civil rights and
human rights. There is no wonder that he smiled when he visited Black
Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC. That plaza and the protests
after the murder of George Floyd are direct descendants of protests
that John Lewis was involved in during the 1950s and 1960s.
of the youth of that era boldly challenged the status quo. Consider
the Little Rock Nine. They were verbally and physically harassed and,
in at least one case, experienced economic consequences. The Nine
endured a harrowing year. Ernie Green, the best-known of the Little
Rock Nine, was the only African American to graduate from Central
High School in 1958. The school was closed the following year, and
the Little Rock Nine completed their high school education elsewhere.
as it is agonizing to think of John Lewis beaten so severely that his
skull was cracked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, it is also
painful to think of Melba Patillo one of the Nine who was kicked,
beaten and had acid thrown in her face, or Gloria Ray, who was pushed
down a flight of stairs. Elizabeth Eckford attempted to walk into
Central High School alone, having missed the others because of a
communications snafu. She faced an angry and hostile mob and soldiers
who would not allow her to enter the school. Gloria Ray’s
mother, Julie Miller Eckford, lost her state job because she would
not withdraw her daughter from Central High School. These young
people, like John Lewis, had tenacity, commitment, and vision.
Dr. Ron Walters (1938-2010), the distinguished professor who spent
most of his career as a political scientist at Howard University. He
was president of the NAACP Youth Council in Wichita, Kansas, when he
organized a sit-in at Dockum Drug Store in July 1958, just weeks
after Ernie Green graduated from Central High School and more than a
year before the Greensboro sit-in in 1960. The students who
participated in the sit-in ranged in age from 15 to 22. The sit-in
lasted three weeks and ended when the store manager said the sit-in
was costing too much money.
1960, a young Jesse Jackson led a protest at the segregated
Greenville, South Carolina library, when he was told he could not
check out a book he needed for his undergraduate research. The
Greenville Eight, including Jackson, were arrested for disorderly
conduct when they visited the library, browsed, and refused to leave.
After the arrests, the City Council voted to close both the white and
the dilapidated one-room colored library. The libraries reopened
about two months later, available to all citizens. Like Lewis,
Jackson has dedicated his life fighting for civil rights and economic
celebrating John Lewis and his remarkable life, we also honor other
young civil rights activists who risked their lives to take a stand.
They made a difference in the struggle for justice. And just as we
celebrate them, we must also celebrate today’s young activists,
those in the Black Lives Matter Movement who have mobilized young
people to protest police brutality, the myth of white supremacy, and
I think of John Lewis, his remarkable courage, and the leadership he
offered at every stage of his life, I also reflect on the
much-discussed generational conflict in the African American
community. This conflict is, in some ways, inevitable. In other ways,
it is unnecessary. Black folks of every age want the same thing –
social and economic justice. And depending on our age, we approach
the struggle differently. Some will put their lives on the line; some
will march, others will boycott racist companies and write checks.
Some of every age will do nothing. Those of us who are elders must
embrace youth leadership in the spirit of John Lewis, Ernie Green,
Jesse Jackson, and others.