In thinking about Lewis’s achievement, I found that the words coming to mind were not those of a politician or an organizer, but a well-known injunction from a pope. “If you want peace,” Paul VI said in 1972, “work for justice.” This was the commitment that drove Lewis’s life.
At a celebration of Lewis’s 65th birthday in 2005, a recently elected U.S. senator summed up the lesson taught by the man who had been beaten very nearly to death on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., 40 years earlier.
“That in the face of the fiercest resistance and the most crushing oppression,” Barack Obama said, “one voice can be willing to stand up and say that’s wrong and this is right and here’s why. And say it again. And say it louder. And keep saying it until other voices join the chorus to sing the songs that set us free.”
Rather than trying to match the eloquence of what has already been said, I’d offer a tribute to this extraordinary public figure by remembering his own eloquence and wisdom.
On “social revolution” at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963:
We must have legislation that will protect the Mississippi sharecropper who is put off of his farm because he dares to register to vote. We need a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation. We need a bill that will ensure the equality of a maid who earns five dollars a week in a home of a family whose total income is $100,000 a year. …
My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation. There are exceptions, of course. We salute those. But what political leader can stand up and say, “My party is the party of principles”? … Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?
On the role of religion in the civil rights movement, from a January 2004 interview:
I’m deeply concerned that many people today fail to recognize that the movement was built on deep-seated religious convictions, and the movement grew out of a sense of faith — faith in God and faith in one’s fellow human beings. From time to time, I make a point, trying to take people back, and especially young people, and those of us not so young, back to the roots of the movement. During those early days, we didn’t study the Constitution, the Supreme Court decision of 1954. We studied the great religions of the world. We discussed and debated the teachings of the great teacher. And we would ask questions about what would Jesus do. In preparing for the sit-ins, we felt that the message was one of love — the message of love in action: don’t hate. If someone hits you, don’t strike back. Just turn the other side. Be prepared to forgive. That’s not anything any Constitution say[s] … about forgiveness. It is straight from the Scripture: reconciliation.
On introducing a bill to restore the Voting Rights Act in 2019:
“Voting access is the key to equality in our democracy. The size of your wallet, the number on your Zip code shouldn’t matter. The action of government effects every American so every citizen should have an equal voice. … We all count! It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, or white, Latino, Asian-American or Native American. We are one people. We are one family. We all live in the same house – the American house.”
To see all of the young people — black, white, Latino, Asian-American, Native-American — standing up, speaking up, being prepared to march, they’re going to help redeem the soul of America.
On never giving up (posted on social media, July 16, 2019):
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way. #goodtrouble