What Climate Change Activists Can Learn From John Lewis

Lessons from the greatest living American.

John Lewis speaks at a microphone, with a sign featuring his name displayed in front of him.
Georgia Rep. John Lewis testifies to the Senate Judiciary Committee during the second day of confirmation hearings on Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be U.S. attorney general on Jan. 11, 2017. Reuters/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

On this week’s Political Gabfest, David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and Josie Duffy Rice of the Appeal discussed Rep. John Lewis’ announcement that he has pancreatic cancer as well as his legacy and that of the civil rights movement. This transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Plotz: Rep. John Lewis announced this week that he is being treated for stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Lewis is one of the last living lions of the civil rights movement, the last living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington. He is also, I would say, the greatest living American, and he is still very much with us. Hopefully he will live many years longer, but he is clearly suffering now, and it’s a good occasion to think about who he is, and why he’s important, and why the passing of his generation is such a loss for America. Who is John Lewis? Why is he so important?

Josie Duffy Rice: I’m from Atlanta, and there has been no bigger hero in my experience than John Lewis. Certainly no bigger living hero. He’s my congressman. He was elected the year before I was born, so he has represented me my whole life. And he has been a fixture, not just in American politics, but specifically in Atlanta. He has been so engaged in this community that he has been fighting for almost 80 years now. Since he was a teenager, John Lewis has put his life, his comfort, and his health on the line for this country. It is unfathomable to me that he has to experience this disease. But you have to stay hopeful, right? It’s the beginning of the year—we can’t lose hope yet.

Plotz: It’s mind-boggling what he did. As a teenager, he helped integrate the lunch counters of Nashville as a student at Fisk. He was an early acolyte of nonviolence and trained in James Lawson’s nonviolence workshops. He was on the first bus of Freedom Riders. He led the Mississippi Freedom Summer a couple of years later. He was the national chairman of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and was one of its founders. He was one of the six organizers of the March on Washington, where he spoke. He was the leader and the public victim of the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, where the attack on him by white police officers as he prayed while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge was recorded on film. The photo of his skull being fractured became an iconic photo of the degradation of what had happened in the American South and led directly to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That is just what he did in about six years in the early ’60s. It’s astonishing.

Duffy Rice: John Lewis is 10 years younger than my grandmother, who also was at the March on Washington, was also at the Freedom Rides, who left her three daughters at home when she was in her 20s to go down to Mississippi. It makes me particularly despondent about where we are today, when we’re talking about an increase in anti-Semitic attacks and an increase in racism, when we’re talking about the hyperpartisan, low-integrity nature of our current political system, to see people like my grandmother, people like John Lewis, getting older and not being able to see as clearly the fruits of their labor.

Emily Bazelon: I thought a lot about a tweet from Adam Serwer about whether we’re really prepared for the passing of this civil rights generation. When you hear John Lewis speak, there’s something so stirring about it. The history feels very vivid and present. We’re not recovered from the ills that led to the civil rights movement, and so it feels like it’s not time to lose that sense of history in our midst.

Lewis has always talked about the continuing presence of racism, but he also celebrated the ways in which his presence in Congress and the country itself has shifted. We aren’t where we were. We’re also not where we were supposed to get or where we need to go. It’s hard to think about that when you’re also imagining a world where we lose this older generation of people who were the witnesses and the participants.

Duffy Rice: That’s not to say that their efforts were for naught. My son’s 2. His life at 2 is better than my grandmother’s life was at 2 because of things that she did and people like John Lewis did and 70, 80 years of the civil rights fight. The fact that it feels like we’re on a downward slope is the thing that’s particularly scary, right? Because you expect things to continually get better.

Plotz: What do you guys think is the way to recapture, if it’s possible, some of that spirit of that generation of leaders, not necessarily around civil rights? It might be around climate, it might be around voting rights, it might be around criminal justice, it could be around any number of things. Are there any micromovements that you see that are developing along the same lines?

One of the things I would point out is that when you look back at the history of the civil rights movement, what’s interesting is that in the gauzy nostalgic film of history, we tend to lump everybody together. It’s all Dr. King and then these lieutenants to Dr. King and the March on Washington. But, of course, it was a movement that was filled with a huge diversity of ideas and tactics and methodologies and kinds of people who didn’t always get along. And what happened was that the collective ferment and experimentation and work across different time periods in different places with different tactics was what ultimately made the movement succeed for the most part. I wonder if you see that developing, and if you don’t see it developing, how could it be developed?

Bazelon: It’s always a mistake to forget about Malcolm X. He was just such an important strand of that movement then.

Climate change is obviously an enormous challenge confronting humanity, but it’s so slow-rolling. It’s almost designed to defeat our capacity to act with urgency, because we can’t tell exactly what the shape of it is. We’re much more prone to bailing out people who are bearing the cost now, especially in wealthy America. It’s easier to rebuild on a coastline than really rethink what we’re doing and try to marshal all of our resources to stop it.

To me, the issue of immigrants, in this country and internationally, feels like it has a lot of that urgency right now in terms of the way that we’re treating people and the lack of humanity from government actors. But it’s tricky, because black Americans in the 1960s who were facing racism were citizens. No one was questioning, or should have been questioning, their presence here. I don’t think the left has figured out what to do about the fact that most people are not ready to open the borders. So, while it’s easy to rail against the Trump administration for its terrible, inhumane policies, it’s not so easy to figure out what the boundaries are, or how you’re going to solve the whole global scale of the problem.

Maybe I’m being overly romantic and nostalgic, but I look back on the civil rights movement, and I think, OK, there were some basic principles that were pretty universal and in the end won out. You can see that today with the gay rights movement, with the movement to give trans people full civil rights, this sense of shared humanity that feels like a more manageable problem that we’re actually addressing with some success in the United States. But climate and immigration, which are enormous challenges, both feel vexing in a different way.

Duffy Rice: I think that’s right. I work in criminal justice. The changes we’ve made in this space in the past five or six years has been remarkable. It’s happened in such a short amount of time, it feels like whiplash, and it does give me hope about the way that people’s basic understandings of other people’s humanity can shift. We’re not there, and the problem we face in the criminal justice movement in some ways reminds me of the problem we face in the immigration space, which is essentially, well, if you break the law you get what’s coming to you, which is the narrative of people who are still justifying family separation or justifying jail deaths or whatever kind of inhumane thing people are choosing to say is OK that day.

The climate thing to me feels both completely hopeless and, looking at Australia these past few weeks, just so deeply, deeply depressing and scary. The generation younger than me, kids in college right now, are really fighting this and are building coalitions, trying to influence policy, going out there and fighting for real climate change–focused policy in a way that does give me hope that even if we can’t do this, maybe the next generation can.

Plotz: The title I gave this episode of the Political Gabfest was “Good Trouble,” which I saw all over the writing about John Lewis. I just want to pay tribute to it. Lewis describes himself and has been described as getting in good trouble, which, as I understand it, is this idea that you are going to mess with the system. You are going to do something that that is going to cause you pain. Lewis was attacked a number of times. He was badly beaten a number of times; he was arrested and charged with crimes. Good trouble is doing it this way, which is obviously noble and right and good. I love that concept. It’s really admirable, and I wish more people could find ways to get in good trouble.

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