Congressman John Lewis’ 80 Year Fight For Racial Justice

John Lewis is a civil rights leader who’s now served as a Georgia congressman for over 30 years. 

Lewis is the third of 10 children and is currently 80-years-old. He grew up from a sharecropping family in Alabama, and in college he began his career as an activist by organizing sit-ins to integrate  lunch counters in the city of Nashville. He also is known for marching alongside Martin Luther King and is a survivor of a vicious attack by the Ku Klux Klan. He’s been arrested over 40 times, five of which occurred as he worked as a legislator, so generally speaking, Lewis has been around for a majority of the civil rights movements in modern America. 

He used his passion as an activist to begin a career in politics, as a means of changing the system from the inside out. As a congressman, one of his most notable accomplishments was signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, unfortunately, the Supreme Court stripped the enforcement of that act back in 2013, and this is not the first time Lewis has seen the more recent administrations pull back on the civil rights him and countless other black individuals fought for.

While America endures one of the largest and most widespread protests for racial justice since the initial movement in the 1960’s, Lewis acknowledges president Trump as “without a doubt the worst president for civil rights since the 1960’s.” However, Lewis is also amazed by the amount of corporations in America that are acknowledging and reckoning their contribution to systemic racism and segregation in terms of jobs and unequal payment among individuals of different races/genders.

“If John Lewis at 19, 20 wasn’t doing what he did, I wouldn’t be here today,” says Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Now, director Dawn Porter has partnered with CNN films to create “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” a documentary film that’s meant to revisit and celebrate Lewis’ fight for racial equality, and parallel it to the fight today. The film will not only inform the public about Lewis as a civil rights leader, but also how he has brought that role into his career as a congressman; Lewis has served for over 30 years in the House. 

The title “Good Trouble” is derived from past campaign slogans that Lewis used, as well as a reference to the “non-violent agitation to direct attention to injustice, or to the shoddy foundation of the rules,” according to Porter. The film will switch back and forth between Lewis in the 1960’s and his road to re-election during the 2018 midterms.

Lewis was unfortunately diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in December 2019, however, he continues to hold his seat in the House, and has told Porter as long as he “still has breath” in his body he “will do whatever” he can. Lewis’ diagnosis hit newer congress members particularly hard, as Ocasio-Cortez stated above, many of them view Lewis as the individual who paved the way for so many other minorities to have a voice in politics. Individuals who have regarded Lewis as one of their inspirations include Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley.. 

Porter recalls interviewing Lewis for the film and discussing how the assassination of Robert F Kennedy acted as a turning point for him. 

“He decided that he had seen horrific things but he had also seen amazing power and strength in the collective humanity, and so that was the path he was going to follow and be guided. And I think he has not looked back from that.”

Lewis was recently interviewed by New York Magazine about the recent protests that sparked from the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the thousands of other black people who have been killed by the hands of the police. While the tone of this interview is obviously melancholy, Lewis radiates positive energy when he discusses the peaceful protesters who are on the streets every day all over the world, fighting for black lives. 

“I have faith in the conscience of the American people when confronted and the ballot as the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society,” (Lewis referring to the November 2020 election). Porter also recalls that during the year that they spent filming together (2018-2019) obviously a lot of political turmoil occurred, however, every time Porter herself got discouraged or angry while filming, it was Lewis who reminded her to “step away from being reactive and go back to being proactive.” 

Porter recalls his extreme optimism after living through so much injustice for 80 years was the only motivation anyone should need to keep fighting for equality in America. “He is a very peaceful person. He is a person who has seen horrific things, but he can also appreciate life in its fullness,” Porter recalls. 

Lewis hopes that the film evokes that same optimism and motivation in its viewers as it did for Porter. The documentary is meant to inform, educate, and shock the audience in terms of seeing how little Lewis’ fight has changed within his 30 years in congress, and 80 years living as a black person in America. The film will be available for digital download in the US on July 3rd, international release dates are currently to be determined.