Like most Americans, I watched the ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda honoring the “boy from Troy” who became the “conscience of Congress.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi eulogized her colleague, the late Rep. John Lewis.
The centerpiece of her eulogy was the voice of Lewis himself, reverberating through the Rotunda as if he were there in person.
It was part of a 2014 Emory University commencement speech the civil rights giant delivered at Emory University:
It was many, many years ago, when we would visit the little town of Troy, visit Montgomery, visit Tuskegee, visit Birmingham, I saw those signs and said white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting, colored waiting. I would come home and ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, 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 in 1955, 15 years old in the tenth grade, I heard about Rosa Parks. I heard the words of Martin Luther King Jr. on our radio. 1957, I met Rosa Parks at the age of 17. In 1958 at the age of 18, I met Martin Luther King Jr. and these two individuals inspired me to get in the way, to get in trouble. So, I come here to say to you this morning on this beautiful campus with your great education, you must find a way to get in the way. You must find a way to get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
Many of the dignitaries attending the ceremony wore masks reading “good trouble.”
“Trouble” also might as well be the middle name of the man who devoted his entire life to racial justice and equality.
At a young age, Lewis already got into “trouble” organizing sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee, participating in the “Freedom Rides” and generally challenging “Jim Crow” in the Deep South.
But the real “big trouble” came in March of 1965 when, on a “Bloody Sunday,” Lewis led hundreds of peaceful marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, only to be senselessly and brutally beaten bloody and to have his skull broken by Alabama state troopers .
More “trouble,” including dozens of arrests — five times since his election to Congress in 1986 — followed Lewis throughout his next 55 years of social activism and legislative action on civil rights, voting rights and on so many other noble causes.
But in Lewis’ eyes, such trouble was “Good trouble,” “ Necessary trouble,” when addressing multiple generations across those years, but especially when addressing the younger generation as he has done time and time again via commencement addresses, speeches, books (including the bestselling graphic novel memoir trilogy MARCH), and even via tweets.
Already in 2012, the great orator was “stirring trouble.” Speaking at The Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center’s Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture series in Oakland, Lewis told the audience: “Here today we are too quiet! Find a way to get into trouble if we are going to create a real America! For more than 50 years I’ve been getting in trouble and I plan to get in some more trouble!” And he did!
In a 2016 commencement address, Lewis told Bates College graduates how Martin Luther King Jr. had inspired “the boy from Troy” to “get into trouble, good trouble,” and advised the graduates that they “must find a way to get in the way and get in good trouble, necessary trouble…You have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate, when you leave here, to go out and seek justice for all. You can do it. You must do it.”
In a 2018 tweet Lewis said:
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.
Finally, in a new documentary film, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Lewis says, “My philosophy is very simple,…When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble. Good trouble.”
May Congressman John Lewis Rest in Peace, and may good trouble be with him.
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.