Image by Trent Gilliss
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“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” — John Lewis
In the week since Rep. John Lewis died, I’ve returned to something Imani Perry wrote in another time and in another context — on grace: “In the Catholic tradition, there is a form of grace, the sanctifying one, that is the stuff of your soul. It is not defined by moments of mercy or opportunity; it is not good things happening to you. Rather, it is the good thing that is in you, regardless of what happens. You carry this down through generations, same as the epigenetic trauma of a violent slave-master society. But the grace is the bigger part. It is what made the ancestors hold on so that we could become.”
This kind of grace is woven throughout John Lewis’s life. He was born the third son of sharecroppers in rural Alabama. At 21, he protested against segregation on public transportation as part of the 1961 freedom rides. Two years later, he spoke at the March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. And in 1965, he was beaten unconscious by police while leading the march from Selma to Montgomery, in what is now known as Bloody Sunday.
During the civil rights movement and in his decades of public service thereafter, Lewis met the resistance, contempt, and violence against his activism with nonviolence and love. In his 2013 conversation with Krista, which we’re revisiting this week in his memory, he talked about seeing the humanity in everyone — even those who were attacking, beating, or spitting on him. “There comes a time where you have to be prepared to literally put your physical body in the way to go against something that is evil, unjust, and you prepare to suffer the consequences. But whatever you do, whatever your response is, is with love, kindness, and that sense of faith.”
The same love anchored his protest against a society designed to never love him back. “When we went on the freedom ride, it was love in action. The march from Selma to Montgomery was love in action,” he said. “We do it not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s love in action.”
He was committed to the work, even knowing he might never see the fruits of his labor. As he reflected in his On Being conversation, “You have to take the long, hard look. With this belief, it’s going to be OK. It’s going to work out. If it failed to happen during your lifetime, then maybe — not maybe, but it would happen in somebody’s lifetime,” he said. “But you must do all that you can do while you occupy this space during your time.”
He certainly lived up to these words — whether as a young man walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge or as an elder walking across the Black Lives Matter mural painted across the streets of Washington, D.C. last month. If grace is, as Imani Perry writes, “what made the ancestors hold on so that we could become,” then the world has much to thank for John Lewis’s grace.
Editor, The On Being Project
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On Being with Krista Tippett
“Love in Action”
The legendary late civil rights elder and congressman, with lived wisdom for the culture of protest and common life today.
Krista Remembers John Lewis
Photo by Trent Gilliss
In 2013, Krista and the On Being team took part in a civil rights pilgrimage alongside John Lewis. This week she offered some reflections on their time together:
It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life — attending a five-day pilgrimage led by Rep. John Lewis to the holy ground of the civil rights movement in 2013.
In Tuscaloosa, we walked through the auditorium doorway where in 1963 Gov. George Wallace barred the entry of the first two African American students, causing the federal government to intervene to secure their right to be there. Sixty years later in our presence, the younger sister of one of them — a Harvard-educated lawyer — had a deeply moving, reconciliatory meeting with Wallace's daughter and grandson. In Birmingham, we worshipped at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were killed in a KKK bombing in 1963. In Selma, we walked across the bridge with John Lewis and others, including a nun who had ministered to the marchers when they were beaten back violently on Bloody Sunday. This was the first of two unsuccessful attempts to march all the way from Selma to Montgomery. And it was in Montgomery, where the third try finally succeeded, where I sat down with John Lewis in the afternoon of an emotional day. The young white police chief of Montgomery issued the first ever apology to John Lewis, giving him his badge and bringing all of us — including both of them — to tears.
We speak about this in our interview. Of all that I learned from John Lewis, most urgent to me now is how partial an understanding has come down through history of the muscular complexity of what those leaders did and how they effected it. Nonviolence was not a withholding but a psychologically savvy and deeply pragmatic “love in action,” as John Lewis said again and again to me — not an absence of violence but a presence of something stronger and truer with a force to transform and redeem. — Krista
Healing Our City
The beautiful Healing Our City initiative in The On Being Project's home city of Minneapolis is entering its last week. You can still join the prayer/silent mediation of the day on Facebook Live and a global session at 6:45 p.m. CT every day. Learn more.
Recommended Reading & Listening
Read | “The Blessing of ‘I love — you’” by Aryeh Ben David
As Krista tweeted: “In a time of physical separation, a newfound late life ease in saying ‘I love you’ all around has been a balm. I see this organic in my children in their world, and it delights me. Turns out I'm not alone.”
Listen | “Where Does It Hurt?” with Ruby Sales
The civil rights activist was 16 when she marched from Selma to Montgomery alongside John Lewis.
Listen | “Our Lives Can Be Signposts for What's Possible” with Vincent Harding
A short Becoming Wise episode on the mentorship that elders can offer young people working toward change.
Find more reading and listening in our onbeing.org library on civil rights elders.
A conversation on museums and healing
Wednesday, July 29, 2020, 6 p.m. ET
Krista will speak with the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Lonnie Bunch, about how museums are adapting to a changing world amid the pandemic, rising xenophobia, and anti-racist uprisings. They’ll ponder how museums can respond to the needs of communities, promote tolerance, enable empathy, and shape conceptions of ourselves and others. Learn more.