Get in the Way. That is John Lewis’s advice. The famous civil rights activist encourages others to get involved in order to change things. His entire life has been about getting in the way.
This documentary covers his activism, his foray into politics, his family—looking at different points throughout his life.
His six brothers and three sisters all seem to recount the same stories about him. He wanted to be a preacher and he loved the chickens he cared for. He would preach to the chickens, even baptize them, and, to the family’s amazement, they had funerals for chickens that died.
His parents raised him to treat others fairly and to be kind. And to stay out of trouble—the direct opposite of John’s modern advice of getting in the way. He went off to seminary and started getting in the way.
In 1957, he left for American Baptist College in Nashville, the first time he was in an integrated environment. There he met Jim Lawson at a nonviolence workshop and started his journey in nonviolent protests. After participating in protests, he described feeling free, as though he had crossed over. For him, “nonviolence is love in action.”
In 1960, the Supreme Court banned segregation on transportation, but the law was not enforced. John participated in the famous Freedom Rides, attempts to ride buses from DC to New Orleans. The rides ended in disaster. At one depot, a bus was met by a mob of hundreds who attacked and beat the riders. In 2009, one of the attackers, Elwin Wilson, apologized to John, an apology that John accepted.
John was a powerful force in the early years of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and went on to chair it from 1963 to 1966. Nonviolence was at the heart of all SNCC and John did. The documentary quotes lines from the SNCC Constitution: “Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overcomes injustice.” .
John was also one of the Big Six who organized the 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He coordinated efforts in 1964 to register voters in Mississippi. And in 1965 he joined—when SNCC wouldn’t—the march from Selma to Montgomery with King.
The documentary then shifts gears and focuses on Lewis’s role in politics. Active in community organizations, he was encouraged to run for office. John has continued to be active in fighting for civil rights and against discrimination in whatever form it takes. He has actively supported immigrants, LGBT rights, people with HIV/AIDS. A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
He does not seem to lose hope but realize that the fight is ongoing. Getting in the way never ends. He spoke up when the Voting Rights Act was gutted in 2013. He spoke up when voting hours were reduced and voter ID requirements passed across the country, pointing out that they were aimed at suppressing the vote. He spoke up against efforts to limit or repeal gun control.
The documentary covers the highlights of John Lewis’s commitment towards securing people their rights and fair treatment. For a more in-depth look at his role in the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, I highly recommend the recent movie Selma. For a look at his early life and the activism he took part at, check out the graphic novel trilogy March. Both will inspire you to get in the way.
Bless you, John Lewis, the conscience of the Congress. Thank you for the decades of service to your brothers and sisters of all persuasions. May you get in the way for many more decades.