When I speak with elders from my Birmingham, Alabama, community, many can vividly remember the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died. They can recall exactly where they were sitting, what they were wearing. Some can even remember the exact time of day. I always marveled at that recollection. And I often wondered if there would ever be a death so significant that I would remember the exact time I found out.
It was a Friday night—10:46 p.m. CST to be exact. That was the time I found out Congressman John Lewis had passed away. As the emotions began to wash over my body, I immediately thought about the freedom fighters and movement elders from my community, and what they must have been feeling. Just earlier that day, they’d received word of Rev. C.T. Vivian’s death—and now Rep. John Lewis.
In one day, this nation lost two giants.
The South lost two of its most revered leaders.
Alabama lost her freedom son.
John Lewis, the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, was a U.S. representative for the state of Georgia, but Alabama is where he was born and where he bled. It’s where his legacy still cries from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to 16th Street Baptist Church. He is a powerful reminder that Alabama has, and still can, change the world.
The revered civil rights icon would often tell the story of Bloody Sunday. He would recall how he was hit in his head and trampled upon. He would recount the tangible hate he met on that bridge and how only the thought of freedom kept him there. In many ways it reminds me of the biblical story where Paul says, “From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand marks of Jesus.” The apostle is telling the Galatians in order for there to be peace we have to bear the burdens of each other.
Yes, Congressman John Lewis bore the marks of freedom on his body and he carried the torch of justice deep in his soul. He was unrelenting in his pursuit of equality and dignity for all people. He truly was the Conscience of the Congress and the soul of this nation—and he was also one of my most treasured mentors and friends. Twelve years ago during former President Obama’s first run for office, Rep. Lewis hopped in my car and said, “Let’s go!” He poured into me as we drove to cities across the Florida panhandle—and I’ve been committed to good trouble ever since.
Lately, his soul had been troubled by ongoing attacks on voting rights and issues of voter suppression. He was troubled by displaced dreamers, troubled by an all too familiar re-emergence of police brutality, troubled by leadership that enacted violence against the beloved community he had fought so long for.
Congressman John Lewis bore the marks of freedom on his body and he carried the torch of justice deep in his soul.
But in true John Lewis fashion he didn’t just complain about the issues he was seeing, he did what he’s always done. He got to work on behalf of the people. In the last 16 months, I personally witnessed him lead on the Hill, participate in boycotts, hold meetings to discuss legislation, and shift focus on key issues surrounding equality, housing, education, and more.
He was front and center at the Democratic presidential primary debate held in Atlanta where I observed him spend time talking to all the candidates.
He was the surprise guest speaker at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta, which had over 5000 Black millennials of faith in attendance. He was there to encourage them to get into good trouble this election cycle—and to remind them that justice is not the absence of faith, rather faith is rooted in the fight for justice.
Earlier that day, the congressman and I shared a giggle. I hadn’t seen him in awhile and so in our usual custom we had to cut up a bit. He asked me about Woke Vote and what I was working on. He asked me if my heart was in what I was doing. I felt convicted and reassured all at the same time. “Good trouble,” I answered him. “I am still committed to the good trouble of my day, Congressman.”
That was the last time I saw him in person.
Over the last hours and days, I’ve read so many testimonies and reflections like mine. Many people have shared how their moments spent with Rep. Lewis were always illuminated by the pursuit of justice and that he always poured wisdom unto their paths. This isn’t that surprising to know about a man who lived a life of purpose, on purpose. A man whose presence was twice his physical stature. A man who was the ultimate teacher, a passionate advocate, a genuine listener, and a strategic administrator. A man who was a light in the darkest of places. There was an authenticity about him, an earnestness. Even if you didn’t agree with him, you respected the process that led to his conviction. He continually challenged the United States to be her greatest self and he often stood up to the most fierce reminders and manifestations of her structural violence.
I like to think that the soles of his feet were worn from walking the path of righteousness, and I’m happy he’s getting his rest. But, selfishly, I still wonder what am I going to do without my cut-up partner during this election cycle? Who is going to call me and say, “I don’t want to be at the fancy stuff. I’m riding with you and we’re going to all the early vote polls to make sure folks stay in line”? Who is going to laugh at my references to In the Heat of the Night?
Most importantly, who is going to make themselves and their wisdom available to me every time I need it? Who will fight for us now? Who will get in good trouble? Will we, those of us Congressman Lewis poured into, pick up his mantle? Will we push toward excellence, push toward discovery, push toward peace, push toward freedom?
Having recently been gassed on the frontlines in Minneapolis and nearly trampled on the frontlines in Louisville calling for justice, I, too, bear the marks on my body and the urgency in my soul. I, along with so many others organized for justice in earnest pursuit of righteousness, will collectively protect, honor, and continue Rep. Lewis’s legacy and that of his brother in the struggle, Rev. C.T. Vivian.
Because, as he taught us, “We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now.”
Who will get in good trouble?
I love you, Congressman John Lewis. This nation owes you a debt that can only be repaid by executing justice with reverent zeal. And, even though I know thank you isn’t enough, I say thank you, my friend. Thank you, my righteous guide. I lament that you passed in such a tumultuous time; but, I promise you, we are going to fix this. Your life’s work will never be in vain.
Glory glory, hallelujah.
Your truth will march on.
DeJuana Thompson is the founder of Woke Vote, an organization designed to engage, mobilize, and turnout African American voters in the South through campus and faith-based outreach, strategic media outreach, culturally relevant GOTV efforts and training for new organizers.
DeJuana is a Founding Partner of Think Rubix, a social innovation firm specializing in engagement strategy, policy and storytelling. She is also a Dial Fellow with the prestigious Emerson Collective and recipient of the Demos Transforming America Award. IG: @iamdejuana Twitter: @dejuanat