On a blazing hot October 1, 2006, I heard John Lewis speak at the dedication to the newly installed James Meredith statue on the campus of the University of Mississippi. Before the ceremony began, Mr. Lewis was standing with Chancellor Khayat, Morgan Freeman, and others who were awaiting the unveiling.
I do not recall his words on that occasion, but I do know it was a moment of inspiration to hear his voice that day, and to know that I was having the opportunity to see and hear a man who had made a difference in the lives of so many people, and a difference in the governance of this nation. His loss is a loss for all of us who seek justice. Many things will be said about him over the course of the next few days and he will be mourned by many of us, and remembered for his recent encouragement to continue to seek justice and fairness, and I had to smile when I heard “organize. ”
In 2010 as the Social Welfare Action Alliance was preparing to hold our annual conference in New Orleans, still in recovery 5 years later from the injustice laid open by Hurricane Katrina, we established a Civil Rights Track in the program. My job was contacting the organizers and participants during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. In conversations with one of the Civil Rights Veterans from Mississippi, he sent me the photograph above, of a young John Lewis when he was an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee working Freedom Summer 1964 in Mississippi. In 1964, I was 14, just a year older than the young man of 13 who is looking up at John Lewis. I try to imagine what these young men were thinking and feeling as they planned next action steps and I cannot. They were facing a solemn and defining moment not only for themselves, but in behalf of other people. Representative Lewis called it getting into “good” trouble. Mandela’s Xhosa name, Rolihlahla, meant “he who pulled the branch of a tree” but the common interpretation was “troublemaker.” Shake the tree and remember John Lewis: organize.