At the height of the civil rights movement, before he could even dream of becoming a congressman from Georgia, Lewis trekked cross-country as one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In Alabama, he marched from Selma to Montgomery and was beaten on Bloody Sunday as he attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge with other marchers.
His experiences then, lessons learned about nonviolent protest and civil disobedience, still shape his political career now. And at age 76, in a time of political memes and Internet mobs and the profusion of “slacktivism” in place of physical activism, Lewis is fusing the old with the new to educate the next generation about being a changemaker using platforms they understand: social media and comic books.
Lewis’s Twitter and Facebook timelines are filled with the black and white photographs of his past, alongside the mugshots and portraits of the civil rights leaders that he worked alongside more than five decades ago. His posts are wildly popular, consistently garnering thousands of likes, shares and comments.
And in the written captions that accompany each photo, Lewis often repeats one mischievous phrase: “good trouble.”
That’s what the congressman said he was getting as he and nearly 100 other Democratic lawmakers occupied the chamber well of the House of Representatives. They wore rainbow ribbons for the 49 victims of the Orlando mass shooting that reawakened broad disagreements in the political world about gun rights and sparked renewed calls for action on gun control measures by the left.
Led by Lewis, an initially small group of Democratic representatives congregated on the House floor’s bright blue carpet at 11:29 a.m. Wednesday, sitting cross-legged, shoulder to shoulder — evoking memories of the sit-ins Lewis organized and was a part of decades ago. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren brought them Dunkin’ Donuts. The cohort expanded with each passing hour. They broadcast themselves live on Periscope.
Surrounded by about two dozen other lawmakers, Lewis began the sit-in with a rousing speech that mimicked the style of MLK.
“Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you have to make a way out of no way,” Lewis said. “We have been too quiet for too long. There comes a time when you have to say something, when you have to make a little noise, when you have to move your feet. This is the time. Now is the time to get in the way. The time to act is now. We will be silent no more. The time for silence is over.”
It was a new-age sit-in, led by a veteran of the old-school tactic.
“Sitting there on the floor, I felt like I were reliving my life all over again,” Lewis told reporters late Wednesday. “During the ’60s the sit-ins started with three or four people, and they spread like wildfire. This will spread.”
Early Thursday morning, House Republicans formally adjourned the chamber until July 5, with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) calling the sit-in a publicity stunt.
But as the sun rose over Washington Thursday, some Democratic lawmakers were still on the House floor, vowing to continue their effort to force votes on gun-control measures.
At one point in their protest, Lewis praised his fellow occupiers.
“Thank you for getting in trouble!” Lewis said. “Good trouble.”
That phrase spread rapidly on Twitter during the sit-in. It was used as a hashtag by people expressing solidarity, alongside the hashtags #NoBillNoBreak and #NoFlyNoBuy. Their tweets praised the genius of the saying, and the way Lewis and others had blended new age technology with a peaceful political tactic that holds a sanctified place in American history and culture.
What makes the phrase especially poignant is that it was not crafted as a viral marketing tool. Lewis has been saying it long before hashtags were a thing.
In an interview on CNN about an exhibit honoring his life at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Lewis said that as a boy growing up in Alabama, he’d ask his parents often about the signs across town designating bathrooms and drinking fountains for “whites only.”
“That’s the way it is,” Lewis recalled his parents would say. “Don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble.”
But the boy was absorbing the words of civil rights activists. Something within him stirred.
“Dr. King and Rosa Parks inspired me to get in trouble. Good trouble,” he told CNN. “And maybe, just maybe, this museum will inspire a new generation of young people to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. To make our country and make our world a better place.”
One of the places he found that inspiration, to make “good trouble,” was in the pages of the 1958 comic book “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.” Lewis told The Washington Post in 2013 that the book, a colorful 16-page book on nonviolent protest, prompted him and many other student activists to join the fight.
“It was about the way of love,” Lewis said. “We were beaten and arrested … and that comic book inspired me to make trouble. But it was the good kind of trouble.”
And so in 2013, exactly 50 years after the March on Washington, where Lewis was the youngest speaker and King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the civil rights rabble rouser published a graphic novel of his own.
Titled “March: Book One,” Lewis’s book opens with the March on Washington and chronicles the death of Emmett Till, lunch counter sit-ins and church bombings through his eyes, co-written with staffer Andrew Aydin and illustrated by award-winning cartoonist Nate Powell.
“It’s another way for somebody to understand what it was like and what we tried to do,” Lewis told The Post. “And I want young children to feel it. Almost taste it. To make it real. … It’s not just the words but the action and the drama and the movement that bring it alive.”
And last year, when Lewis attended Comic-Con to support “March: Book Two,” he did something a little extra to bring his experiences to life. Cosplaying as himself, beside people in capes and masks, Lewis wore a trench coat and backpack, just like he did at age 25. That year, 1965, he led 600 marchers peacefully to Selma, Ala., and across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where he was beaten with a night stick and suffered a fractured skull.
That day became known as Bloody Sunday, and the day Lewis thought he was going to die.
And then, in costume, Lewis led a pack of excited third-graders who had come to meet history in flesh across the convention floor. They marched, just like he had 50 years before. He was much older and his fellow marchers much younger, but that moment embodied everything Lewis hoped to accomplish with his comic book.
“I felt very, very moved just by being with the kids,” Lewis told The Post afterward. “… it just felt special — I was in the moment.”
Early Thursday morning, after Republicans adjourned the House, Lewis linked that day in 1965 which he’d recreated at Comic-Con with the protest on the House floor. “Today, we’ve come a distance. We’ve crossed one bridge but we have other bridges to cross,” he said. “… And we will continue to fight. A little more than 50 years ago, I crossed a bridge — not just one time, but it took us three times to make it all the way from Selma to Montgomery. We have other bridges to cross.”