Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), 77, was a student leader in the civil rights movement, organizing sit-ins and serving as one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. From 1963 to 1966, Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He has served in Congress since 1987. In 2011 Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“The moment I was first placed under arrest at a sit-in, I felt free.”
I grew up in rural Alabama. And when we would visit this little place called Troy about 10 miles from our home, I saw the signs that said “white” and “colored.” I didn’t like it. I would ask my mother and my father and my grandparents and my great-grandparents why. They would say, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”
But one day I heard Dr. King speak on the radio. 1955. I was 15. It was an African American station called WRMA. Based in Montgomery. Seemed like he was speaking directly to me. Saying, John Robert, you can do something. You can make a contribution. And so I followed everything I could about Martin Luther King Jr. and the bus boycott. The words of Dr. King and the action of Rosa Parks stirred something up. That you cannot be at home with yourself when you see something that you know is not right. You have to do something. You have to say something. It gave me a sense of hope.
I met Rosa Parks when I was 17. The next year I met Dr. King. Changed my life. Inspired me to get involved in the movement. And James Lawson, a young minister, who started teaching us students in Nashville the way of peace, the way of love — the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. Preparing us to go and sit in on a lunch counter, stand in at a theater, preparing us to be leaders, to be activists. And I knew that I was on the path.
The moment I was first placed under arrest at a sit-in, I felt free. I felt liberated. I felt like I crossed over. That this is not just for this moment or this day or next week or next year. But a way of life. There’s something I call the spirit of history: Sometimes you’re tracked down by a force, and you cannot turn away. So I never thought about saying I’m tired, I’m ready to drop out. You have to continue to pick ’em up and put ’em down. Because there’s so much work to be done. And you never know how much time you have. And you have to use your time wisely.
You have to believe, somehow and some way, in the possibility that we will reconcile to each other as humans. So you study. You meditate. And you forgive. On the Freedom Ride in Rock Hill, South Carolina, members of the Klan beat us and left us in a pool of blood. In 2009, one of the guys that beat us came to this office. He was in his 70s. He came with his son. He said, “Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people that beat you and your seatmate. Will you forgive me? I want to apologize.” His son started crying first. Then he started crying. They hugged me. I hugged them back. And the three of us cried together. That is the power of the way of love.
So even if someone is beating you, knocking you down, even if you’re down on the ground trying to protect your head, you try to maintain eye contact. Let the person who’s trying to hurt you see your humanity.
Dolores Huerta, 87, rose to prominence as an organizer, labor leader and civil rights activist in California. In 1962, she and Cesar Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association (now United Farm Workers), through which they led boycotts and negotiated better conditions and pay for farmworkers. Huerta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
“I’m 87 years old. People say, ‘Why don’t you retire?’ ”
I was actually very shy as a child, but my mother was always pushing me to get out there and be active. So I got involved in a lot of organizations in our community: the Girl Scouts, a church club called the Teresitas after St. Teresa, a club called Azul y Oro. We would sing at the hospital, do dances and raise money, and then give out Christmas and Thanksgiving baskets. In high school I organized a teen center. A lot of my friends were poor and didn’t really have money to go places. We brought in a jukebox, table tennis, just trying to create a space where kids could come together and socialize. But the police shut us down. They didn’t want the interracial — we were a very multiethnic group. We had white kids, African American friends and Asians, Filipinos and Mexicans, all together.
All the time I’d been doing the social organizing and never being able to do anything that I thought really changed things. But in college, one of my professors invited me to this house meeting with a man named Fred Ross. Mr. Ross was organizing the Community Service Organization, CSO. He showed us how they had brought streetlights and clinics into East Los Angeles, how they had organized to get a Latino elected to the City Council, how they had sent these police to prison for beating up Mexican Americans. That meeting transformed my life. I had to belong to that organization. I set up house meetings, would register voters, went to Sacramento to lobby. I became the legislative advocate and then political director. We took on all different issues with CSO, but the farmworker issue was the one that really got me. The fact that ordinary people — poor people, farmworkers — have that power to make changes in the community. Both Cesar Chavez and I wanted to organize a farmworkers union, and CSO didn’t support that, so we left CSO.
Talk about a big moment: I’m going through a divorce — my second husband was not very supportive of the work I was doing — I had seven kids by then. And I make a decision to go to Delano to start the union with Cesar, leaving a job with stable income and not knowing literally where our next meal was coming from. The only thing that worried me was my kids. Because I had a wonderful middle-class upbringing — music lessons, dance lessons, able to go to movies and all that. And my kids, we had really come down to the poverty level of the farmworkers. Cesar’s wife, her sister would go down to the food bank and get the beans and rice, oatmeal and cornmeal so that we could eat. But the end result inspires you.
I’m 87 years old. People say, “Why don’t you retire?” Well, if I can reach more people and get them involved in organizing to make a change in their lives, I think that’s worth every single additional year that I can live.
Harry Belafonte, 90, an award-winning singer, songwriter and actor, became active early in the civil rights movement, helping finance SNCC, the Freedom Rides and voter registration drives. He served as confidant to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and helped organize the March on Washington.
“In the arts, I found a platform where people were saying things that needed to be said, defiantly and poetically and with reward.”
I became an activist because I was born into poverty. And the experiences of poverty and the cruel way in which it treated my family and the members of my community and the members of my race constantly imposed itself on my sense of What do I do about it? The indignities that were heaped upon my mother. Her valiant struggle against being undereducated and being unskilled and being a woman of color and being an immigrant was a cruel burden. There was always the suggestion that there was a life to be aspired to that was better than the one we were experiencing. And I never could quite understand why it was denied us.
I think what to do about this poverty, this disparity was nurtured by my mother’s tenaciousness, her dignity, her wit — and her instruction. I remember once she came home from an unrewarding day trying to find work, very despondent and just sitting down and staring at the wall in our one-room apartment. After a fairly lengthy silence, I asked her what was the matter. She stared at me for a while, and all she said was, “Harry, boy, just promise me one thing. That as you’re growing up and you see injustice, never fail to stop and do something about it.” And though that was a rather confusing and daunting instruction for a 7-year-old, it lingered. The thought rooted itself. And wherever I went, I would find zero tolerance for injustice.
After serving in the Second World War, after the great victory against Hitler and fascism, I came back and found that black people, who fought the same battle and died the same death, were denied the right to vote, denied access to schools, to places to live. I was working as a janitor’s assistant in an apartment building, and one day I was given a gratuity for doing a repair: two tickets to the American Negro Theater. The evening was an epiphany. In the arts, I found a platform where people were saying things that needed to be said, defiantly and poetically and with reward. And through the instruction of people like Paul Robeson, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and others, I began to understand the power of art. I could do something, say something about oppression. I could use my voice in the service of their social agendas.
So I did my “Banana Boat,” my “Day-O,” because these songs, while they entertain, were songs of the peasants in Jamaica working on the banana plantation. I found all the songs I could that were filled with social content. There were those who denounced me for bringing politics into art; there were those who rewarded me handsomely. And when the blacklist really energized itself to destroy careers, my audience stayed fiercely loyal. So any television show or sponsor that didn’t want me: fine. If the McCarthy forces came after me and shut me down in theaters, I could just say, “F--- you,” you know. “I’ll see you in Paris. Or London or Germany.”
And what do we get as a result of that struggle, at least at the moment? A campaign to dismantle everything we gained. But it’s not Trump that bothers me. There’s always a Trump somewhere. A McCarthy. It’s that we let the moment get away. But giving up? How do you do that? I see activists at all levels of our civil society. We’re in abundance.
Jenny Beth Martin, 47, became active in the tea party movement at its inception, first locally in Georgia and then as a co-founder and now president of the national Tea Party Patriots, which focuses on fiscal responsibility, free markets and limited government.
“The desire to be free is such a strong, innate desire in all of us.”
I’ve lived through financial crisis. And it puts things in perspective. In 2007 and 2008, my husband at the time, his business went through trouble. He wound up having to close his business, and we ultimately filed personal bankruptcy. We had little kids. We lost everything. We lost our house. We lost our cars. We were cleaning our neighbors’ homes and cleaning their bathrooms. Selling stuff at garage sales just to get cash to be able to survive.
So that fall, when the TARP bill passed, the bank bailouts, we sat there watching and going: Wait a minute, this is wrong. Businesses fail. Our business failed. And as much as life sucks right now, we’re rolling up our sleeves and finding a way to rebuild. I don’t want the government taking care of me, and I sure don’t want the government taking care of these other businesses. So fast-forward a couple months. President Obama becomes president, and the stimulus bill passes. Rick Santelli has this rant on CNBC: The stimulus bill is awful. Our Founding Fathers would be turning over in their graves. Who here wants to pay for your neighbor’s home who has more bathrooms than you, and they can’t even afford it? We should have a tea party just like our Founding Fathers. I heard that on the radio and knew I had to be involved. I started tweeting about it using #TCOT and #SGP. Smart girl politics and top conservatives on Twitter.
The next day, we got on a conference call, about 22 of us, and decided we’re going to have a tea party. Seven days later, we had 48 tea parties across the country with 35,000 people in attendance. I had never even been to a protest before. I didn’t even know to bring a bullhorn. Initially, the protests were focused towards Democrats, because they were in control, but when Republicans began to have control of the House our focus wound up being on Republicans as much as Democrats. But it wasn’t about elections. It was about issues and legislation. The debt that our country faces. I want to make sure that we’re doing something that’s making our country better for my children and their children.
I think one moment when I really did stop and just go, I can’t believe that I’m doing this — this is not what I ever pictured my life to be, was when Obamacare was being argued in front of the Supreme Court in 2012. I was out there for all three days. I just remember thinking: I’m one of those people who protest outside of the Supreme Court. Wait, I’m one of those people who organized a protest outside the Supreme Court.
There is always a struggle between people who have power and people who want to be free. This isn’t new. But the desire to be free is such a strong, innate desire in all of us that I am optimistic. So as difficult as things are in our country, we’re not in the middle of a revolution, we’re not in the middle of a civil war, and we’re not in the middle of World War II. We have repealed constitutional amendments. We ended slavery. We stopped segregation. And the problems that face us today, we’re going to be able to overcome them.
Ralph Nader, 83, has championed consumer rights, environmental protection and public accountability in his decades of activism. Nader’s advocacy has led to the enactment of several major pieces of legislation, including the Freedom of Information Act. He has founded several watchdog groups and has run for president of the United States.
“All failures of a democracy flow from citizens staying home, turning their back on the community.”
We didn’t start with any money or power. Just knowledge and action. People would say to my mother, “Mrs. Nader, you’re raising four children. How do you find time to be active in the community?” And she said, “There’s really not that sharp a line, is there? If the community isn’t good, what kind of environment is it to raise a family?” That was part of growing up. “You like to be free, Ralph?” “Yeah.” “Okay, well, you have to be responsible for that.”
The best example is my mother. Our town of Winsted, Connecticut, was destroyed twice — 1938 and 1955 — by huge floods, because the channel for the Mad River was narrow and it overflowed. In ’55, Hurricane Diane took half of Main Street down with it: buildings, car dealers, cars bobbing. Eleven people died. And my mother got fed up. Because people in town would be talking about a dry dam, but they’d just talk. So one day, Senator Prescott Bush, grandfather of George W., came to campaign. She went to the reception and stood in line patiently until she got to him. And she grabbed his hand and said, “Senator Bush, we’ve lost life here. We’ve lost property. This dry dam is long overdue. Will you promise that you will get it done?” He tried to sweet-talk her. And she wouldn’t let go of his hand. Until he said yes. He got the Corps of Engineers to do it. We’ve never had a problem since.
See, most people know about injustice. They feel it. They complain about it. They grumble. And we just sort of said, “Okay, what do we do about it?” When I was at law school, I did a third-year paper on unsafe automotive design and the law. The absence of liability, absence of mandatory standards. And I turned that into the book “Unsafe at Any Speed.” I wrote a lot of things on it. So getting the facts and communicating them. And then you ask, “Well, if you don’t try to do it, who’s going to do it?” Are you going to wait around for somebody to say, “I read your article, and I’m rolling up my sleeves?”
Look, all justice movements start from a few citizens. Then they get into the public arena. Then maybe into legislation. Or into corporate practice. Like recalls and so on. And all failures of a democracy flow from citizens staying home, turning their back on the community. People grow up thinking, Oh, you can’t fight City Hall. And, by corollary, you can’t fight ExxonMobil, right? Well, if you grow up that way, you don’t even try. You don’t even develop the tools of democracy. Not just the values of justice, fairness and all that. Instruments, however intangible, of sustaining civic engagement. It’s so easy to have a vibrant democracy. We just have to want it. Value it.
Grover Norquist, 60, president of Americans for Tax Reform, has been a powerful conservative voice advocating for limited government and lower taxes. He is best known for his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which asks lawmakers to promise no net increases in taxes. Norquist was also an author of the “Contract With America” in 1994.
“What made the United States different is a focus on liberty.”
I grew up during the expansion of the Soviet Union, and I think my first political thoughts were from reading books about it. My public library sold off all their conservative books, so I picked them all up for, like, a nickel. So even as a kid, I had a pretty good idea of what I didn’t want: communism, overbearing government. And in ’68 — I’d be 12 — I took a train into town and worked on the Nixon campaign. Then, in ’72, I worked on the campaign again and on House races.
I’ve ended up being in political places where nobody else was doing what I thought needed to be done. The Reagan campaign in ’80, they were taking all the literature out to the suburbs. So we’d go to South Boston and do the bars. Hispanic bars, Eastern European restaurants, different churches. These guys all were big on Reagan and down on Carter and weren’t being invited to the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan changed the party, changed the country, changed the world. That’s the model: Change the party. Change the country. Change the world. When I created the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which says no net tax increase, it was for a particular piece of legislation. But then I realized: That’s not what this is. This is redefining the modern Republican Party as the party that won’t raise your taxes, which then forces them to be the party of entitlement reform and government reform. Because unless you take tax increases off the table, you never reform government.
To expand the coalition, you look for people who are being picked on by the government. Sometimes on purpose; sometimes they’re just stepped on because the government is big, fat and uncoordinated. And then you bring them in on the pro-freedom thing that motivates them. So you have evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Mormons — each one thinks everybody else is going to Hades, but: I need to be free to go to heaven and practice my faith with my kids, and I understand that if I’m going to be left alone, we all have to be left alone. Gun people. Home-schoolers. Vapers. Uber drivers, Lyft drivers, Airbnb. They all want to be left alone, all want freedom.
There’s no excuse for why the United States does better than other places other than freedom. We’re not nicer. We’re not bigger. What made the United States different is a focus on liberty.
If you lived in Belgium, it wouldn’t matter. You could get everything right in Belgium and still get eaten by the French or the Germans or the Russians or someone. But the whole world moves in a good direction or a bad direction based on whether we are being a free country and good model — or not paying attention.
Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, 30 and 31, both worked as congressional staffers on Capitol Hill, as have their Indivisible co-founders, Angel Padilla and Jeremy Haile. Indivisible began with the publication of a 23-page Google document, “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.” Greenberg and Levin married in 2015.
“We put out a guide on what to do when your member of Congress is hiding from you.”
Ezra After the presidential election, we were going through the stages of grief just like everybody else and started pulling together a group just in our living room to talk about, Okay, what do we do? Then for Thanksgiving, we were back in Austin, where I’m from, meeting in a bar with a college friend. She was telling us about this Facebook group she was part of and how there’s a ton of energy out there, but Congress is a black box if you’re new to the process. So the huge goal of resisting the Trump administration’s agenda when there is unified conservative government looked hopeless.
Leah We were like, We need a clear tool kit that explains how members of Congress respond to stimuli and what organized constituent action is. And we were immediately excited because it was something that we, with our congressional experience, could do to give people a sense of their own power.
Ezra We saw the tea party effectively assert that power and take down an incredibly popular president — with huge congressional majorities. They didn’t win all the time. But they slowed down the policymaking process. And, in some cases, either watered down the legislation or straight-up beat it. So we believed that was a strategy that could work in this environment. By Sunday night, we had hammered out a first draft. Then it was about two weeks of getting comments mostly from former congressional staff and revising.
Within an hour or two of tweeting it out, you couldn’t download or print the guide — there were just too many people trying to view it. It’s a weird thing: Hey, read this 20-page guide of democracy that we think could be really useful …
Leah But it took over our lives immediately. First, we were super excited that people were reading the guide at all. Then there started to be these Facebook groups like Indivisible Rochester and Indivisible Columbus. People were really running with it.
Ezra Now we have 5,800 groups. There are at least two groups — and an average of 13 — in every single congressional district in the country.
Leah We had a lot of volunteers, but in early January it was clear that we needed to figure out a real institutionalized way of continuing to be supportive. Because people were reaching out.
Ezra We could have said, “Look, we wrote a Google doc and that’s all. More power to you. Figure it out.” But there was this movement growing, asking us for support. Once all this energy was out there, a lot of members of Congress were saying, I’m not going to hold town halls. They don’t want to look bad in local media. They’re worried about having engaged constituents tell them that they don’t like the Trump administration’s agenda. So we put out a guide on what to do when your member of Congress is hiding from you and how to form these constituent town halls.
The thing is, there was a ton of energy out there. Individuals taking it upon themselves to build groups at the local level. The fact that they’re taking inspiration from the Google doc and calling themselves Indivisible, that’s great. But the really meaningful thing here is that this is a movement of thousands of people taking control of their country.
Jeanne Mancini, 45, is the president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, which hosts its annual march around the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. She previously worked at the Family Research Council and the Department of Health and Human Services.
“You can’t back down because of fear, or what people think, or your reputation.”
My family was a bit of a leftward-leaning Catholic family. We went to church every Sunday, said grace before meals, and social justice was very much instilled. But I turned out a little differently than most of my siblings, a little more quote-unquote religious. I had an experience when I was in high school that was profound and life-changing for me, a retreat called Youth Encounter. I think it was the combination of getting away in nature, of hearing affirmations that they had gotten friends and family to write, and a series of talks there about how there was a plan for my life, that I’m a unique, unrepeatable person — and that’s true of everybody. It was just a beautiful experience of God’s love. And I came away from it with a sense of mission. Which, in some ways, informs what I do now.
After college, I went into the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and worked in a youth crisis shelter and in residential treatment homes with kids who had either been sexually abused or even had been molesters. We’re talking deep, deep wounds. And I went through a whole kind of philosophical grappling: Would it have been better if these kids never lived? Would that have been more merciful? I came to the opposite perspective: Every life is a gift. Who am I to judge the value of this one’s life or that one’s? They could discover the cure for AIDS. They could be the first woman president. So that was very formative in my ultimate calling to pro-life work. I believe that everybody has inherent human dignity, from conception to natural death. And each person has the right to live out their unique mission. I can’t think of a more important social justice cause.
Waking up after the 2016 election, I will say I thought of the Supreme Court. That was really important to me. I’m actually an independent voter. But I feel so strongly about the pro-life issues that I usually end up voting pro-life, which, these days, tends to be more Republican. And it’s incredible what we’ve seen in the first months; the conservative voice is being taken more seriously. And right now, we’re being asked, the March for Life, to submit our founding documents and all of our papers to the women’s history library up at Radcliffe. They came down and visited and basically said, We know that we haven’t always given both sides a voice.
That’s important, because there’s so much divisiveness right now. And for folks like me, whose issues can be considered a little bit more contentious, there can be so much animosity directed towards us. Frankly, it’s a scary time to be a person that cares so much about this that you’re going to put your neck out. You kind of want to go back into your little cave because it’s gotten so ugly. That’s what really makes me cry, that you can’t even stand up for what you believe without being attacked for it anymore. But you can’t back down because of fear, or what people think, or your reputation. You have to do what you know in your heart is right. How can you not?
Alicia Garza, 36, has been an advocate on issues of reproductive health, rights for domestic workers, police brutality, racism and violence against trans and gender nonconforming people of color. Garza co-founded Black Lives Matter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi in 2013.
“I’m often surprised at how many people care and want to get involved, and they’ve just never been asked.”
My mom has this thing where she doesn’t sugarcoat stuff. She would tell me growing up that it used to drive her crazy how we use code words to talk about things. She was like, The impacts of that are really serious. There’s no “stork,” for example. Sex makes babies, and babies are expensive. That was her regular refrain to me. So when I was in middle school and there was a debate happening in my school district over whether or not to allow school nurses to provide condoms, I had strong feelings about it. Bush — the first one — had the “global gag rule” cracking down on any public institution that had any kind of honest conversation about sex and the effects and impacts. So I got involved. I did sex-health education counseling with my peers and wrote op-eds in our local paper.
Black Lives Matter started from a post that I put on Facebook after the acquittal of George Zimmerman. I woke up in the middle of the night sobbing, just trying to process what had happened and wanting to find community around being in a lot of grief and having a lot of rage. I woke up the next morning to see that the post had been shared and liked and all these different things. And my sister Patrisse put a hashtag in front of it, which — I didn’t even really know what hashtags were — certainly helped to put the conversation out there much farther. We then had to figure out what our next step was going to be, because there was so much response. I think people were moved in a way that inspired them to want to organize. Basically people were contacting us, saying things like: How can we be a part of this? We want to start a chapter. We want to be a part of this thing called Black Lives Matter.
I’m often surprised at how many people care and want to get involved, and they’ve just never been asked. I’ve been in conversations with family and colleagues where I say to myself, Wow, I assumed that that wouldn’t be something that you cared about. And silly me for assuming that. The best advice I ever got as an organizer was that if you can organize your family, you’re a good organizer. Because it’s not just rhetoric then. These are people who changed your diaper, people who loved on you at your 9th birthday party. And if they know that there’s something that’s really important to you, it does have the potential to change — not just minds, but the way that people act politically. So when people say, “Well, I don’t talk to my family because they’re all conservatives,” or “I don’t talk to my family because they’re racist,” I’m, like, “No, no, no; that’s exactly who you need to be talking to.” Because the only person who’s going to stop them from sending me death threats is you.
These things happening now at the federal level are literally impacting whether or not people live or die. More changes are coming, and more suffering is coming. I’m not under any illusions about that. But I am hopeful that people won’t take it lying down.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.