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John Lewis’ Legacy of ‘Good Trouble’

In fighting for the downtrodden and the forgotten, not only on the national stage but also in local government, he led a life that ought to provide a moral imperative for today's public officials.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis
U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
Before he was Congressman John Lewis, he was Councilman John Lewis. Before he was Councilman John Lewis, Time magazine called him a living "saint." And before he was Saint John Lewis, he was civil rights leader John Lewis, whom his older civil rights colleague Andrew Young called "a spiritual warrior." The descriptors could go on and on. Lewis, who died on Friday, was constantly reinventing himself for the better, and he used whatever venue he found himself in — the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a city council, Congress — to fight for the downtrodden, the forgotten and the ones society had rendered invisible. He stirred up what he called "good trouble" on their behalf.

In 1987, I was elected to the same Atlanta City Council that Lewis had served on until he was elected to Congress a year earlier. Lewis had joined the council in 1981 along with Andy Young, who went on to be elected mayor. Lewis' signature issues as a council member were ethics and neighborhood preservation. I admired his work fighting to prevent intrusive roads from dividing historic neighborhoods and opposing industrial developments that threatened the quality of life of white working-class neighborhoods like Cabbagetown, which is not far from Auburn Avenue where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home and his Ebenezer Baptist Church are located.

Lewis and his road-activist allies saw to it that an intrusive road that would have snaked through the spine of historic Inman Park never got built as a major parkway. Yet the part of the road that did get built, long after Lewis had left the city council, today bears his name: the John Lewis Freedom Parkway. It leads to the presidential library of Jimmy Carter, for whom Lewis once worked heading up ACTION, the federal volunteer-coordination agency. And it runs past John Lewis Plaza, the home of a sculpture appropriately named The Bridge that was commissioned by his road-activist colleagues to honor his life's work.

I first met Lewis as a college student in 1973 when I worked for his wife, Lillian, a librarian at Atlanta University. Later his son, John Miles, and one of my daughters became close friends, and we parents took turns chauffeuring our kids back and forth to birthday parties, roller-skating rinks and other social outings. I got to see John close-up as a dad, and he was great with his son and our children, always committed and present. When we would run into each other at an airport or a political event, before talking about any other topics, he would always ask how my daughters were doing. His typical response when asked about his son: "He's doing very well; he has a good job with benefits."

In 1986, Lewis won a heated and heavily contested race for Congress against NAACP leader and state Sen. Julian Bond. Ironically, it is Bond's son, City Council member Michael Julian Bond, who has been leading a coalition of Black and white council members who want to honor Lewis and other legends of the civil rights movement with monuments and a peace park named for Rodney Cook Sr., a civic-minded white former city council member and state representative who died in 2013.

The park is being constructed in Vine City, the Atlanta neighborhood where Dr. King moved shortly after his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. In addition to Lewis, the park will honor civil rights leaders like Julian Bond, Coretta Scott King, the Rev. Joseph Boone, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mayor Maynard Jackson, and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, the 95-year-old civil rights giant who died earlier on the same day as Lewis.

I am fortunate to have lived when many of these legends helped change our world for the better. Their passing is a bittersweet moment for me. Even though their lives were about much more than better governance, I am hoping their examples will become a moral imperative for public officials to want to govern better. I am hoping the meaning of their lives gets imprinted on our souls and reminds us of the words of Dr. King, the wise prophet who mentored Lewis, Vivian and so many others: "Life is not worth living until you have discovered something worth dying for."

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.


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